There are films that linger with you after the lights go back on. You keep thinking about them, their characters never leaving your thoughts, as you start to wonder what you would have done if you were ever in their shoes, witnessing their perils, experiencing their hardship, and going through the same challenges and excruciating choices that would have shaped your life once and for all.
Alice Diop’s foray into narrative filmmaking is a film that belongs to this category – an unsettling, striking and provocative film that invites us to ask hard questions with no easy answers in sight. Perhaps the point is not to find answers in the first place but rather delve deep into our souls, asking ourselves crucial questions about parenthood, generational trauma and how our unspoken past wounds can have long-lasting impact on our future decisions.
But above all, this is a film about motherhood, with all its complexities, agony and, in many cases, traumatic impact. Not since We Need to Talk About Kevin has a film truly managed to reveal how horrifying it is to give birth when you’re already a bruised soul. As you see your child coming to life, clinging to you, looking at you as their savior in an overwhelming, strange world, you lose parts of yourself, merging with that new creature and redeveloping, perhaps forcefully, your sense of identity. But sometimes, a part of you, that part that’s been long calling for help, snaps – and what happens after that is anyone’s guess.
A courtroom drama that intentionally becomes claustrophobic, Saint Omer is the story of a young novelist who attends the trial of a woman accused of killing her 15-month-old daughter. It’s a horrific crime, one that’s grabbed headlines and created a media frenzy. Deciding to attend all the sessions of the trial, Rama (who is pregnant herself) finds strong parallels between that woman’s story and herself. As she delves deeper into the case, her own traumas start to come back to the surface, particularly her troubled relationship with her mother. She strongly identifies with the accused woman, and the sessions start taking quite the toll on her.
As the accused woman, a young Black woman (Laurence Coly, played incredibly by Guslagie Malanda) answers the questions of the judge, her story is gradually revealed. An example of someone who has never been truly seen, Coly was rejected by her parents, society, and own husband. Living invisibly as though she never existed, this fascinating character demonstrates how parental indifference, deeply rooted racism, and the generational trauma we inherit from our parents irrevocably shape who we are.
Cutting back and forth between the trial and Rama’s own upbringing, the film invites us to draw parallels between both characters as we question whether Cily is a victim, a culprit or perhaps both. Evolving from an apparently cold-hearted killer into a deeply wounded human beings, the film’s biggest accomplishment is how it makes you see this central character in ways she’d never experienced in her own life. As ironic as this sounds, when Coly is on the stand, answering deeply unsettling questions about her life, she is finally seen, though too late.
In the film’s final moments and certainly one of the year’s most strikingly written scenes, the defense lawyer argues that women are humane monsters, carrying the DNA of their mothers as well as their born children, holding within their mothers’ horrors and unspeakable fears, while being asked to care for these new creatures they’ve merged their existence with. It’s a fascinating scene that will leave many audience members in tears, as they look within and examine their mothers’ traces within them and wonder how much of their own traumas has found its way into their own children.
Saint Omer haunts you and grows on you. It makes you uncomfortable, curious, and even disturbed. But these are the hallmarks of great, provocative cinema, one that helps us rediscover ourselves and our place in the universe, and in the process, be able to better understand those around us and see them for who they truly are.
This review is from the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Saint Omer will be released in the U.S. by SUPER, the boutique label from NEON.