Saint Omer: a chilling courtroom drama that plays on deep maternal fears

Alice Diop’s fiction feature debut, based loosely on a real-life infanticide court case, examines the monstrous potential within all mothers with startling insight and empathy.

13 September 2022

By Leila Latif

Kayije Kagame as Rama in Saint Omer (2022)
Sight and Sound

Labelling a dreaded event befalling a child as a “mother’s worst nightmare” may seem like a cliché. But at least one mother in Alice Diop’s Saint Omer experiences a steady descent into hell that surely surpasses the darkest thoughts of any parent.

Writer/director Diop is best known for her award-winning 2021 documentary We, set in an area of Paris bordering the RER B train line and stitching together numerous stories to create an intricate portrait of life in some of the City of Light’s most deprived suburbs. Although it is Diop’s fiction feature debut, Saint Omer has its roots in real events, namely the 2015 story of Fabienne Kabou, a Senegalese immigrant accused of murdering her 15-month-old baby. A mother of Senegalese extraction herself, Diop attended the 2016 trial, closely watching Kabou and the workings of the French judicial system to try to make sense of the crime.

The film does not attempt to reconstruct the factual events precisely. Our protagonist is Rama (Kayije Kagame), a successful young novelist expecting a baby with her loving partner Adrien (Thomas de Pourquery). Sometimes she is in denial of her maternal situation; other times, she is terrified by the baby growing inside her. Her only respite seems to come when her publishers call to lavish praise on her work. Though she is anxious not to replicate the strained relationship she has with her own mother, Rama’s paradigm of maternal fear shifts to something far worse once she starts attending a courtroom in the run-down town of Saint-Omer, northern France, to follow an infanticide case.

Most of the film takes place in that courtroom. The defendant, Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), takes the stand and stares blankly outwards as the jury is selected; she rarely loses her composure. When asked why her daughter is dead she has no explanation, telling the judge: “I don’t know. I’m hoping this trial will give me an answer.” Throughout the film, Rama and Laurence never speak, only once exchanging a glance; the tactful restraint of Diop’s filmmaking gives a violent intensity to brief eye contact and a shy smile. Over the course of the trial, supporting players in baby Elise’s tragic fate come to testify to their own impeccable behaviour. The evidence often works against that self-righteousness, and disturbing prejudices are laid bare, but Diop depicts each witness with empathy, holding that the reasons behind the madness to which Laurence succumbs is not a moral puzzle to be neatly solved.

Saint Omer is a remarkable feat in numerous ways. The acting is uniformly superb, even when it’s simply dispassionate testimony that’s being dispatched. Kagame plays Rama in a state of continual displacement, ill at ease at dinner with her mother, uncomfortable on the streets of Saint-Omer and conspicuous in the courtroom; Malanda evokes profound pain through the tiniest cracks in her expressions and voices as she revisits traumatic memories. Beyond the two women at the film’s centre, each role is faultlessly acted, from the man (Xavier Maly) who fathered the baby with Coly and testifies to their turbulent relationship, to the judge (Valérie Dréville) who wants to understand the emotional reality of the case but is committed to the legal truth, interjecting with cold facts when accounts deviate, to the defence barrister (Aurélia Petit) whose harrowing concluding speech, spoken plainly to camera, touches on everything from the purpose of justice to the raw biology of motherhood. Diop cuts to the silent grieving faces of the women in the courtroom as the lawyer affirms what they know to be true: “We carry within us the traces of our mothers and our daughters who in turn carry ours. It is a never-ending chain. In a way, us women, we are all monsters. We are all terribly human monsters.”

Diop’s careful direction allows the elegant dialogue to soar. Each frame, each cut, is characterised by the exquisite precision that makes her non-fiction work so compelling. Saint Omer, like Coly herself, does not have answers, and Diop steers away from the usual courtroom drama conventions that culminate in confident judgments. With each testimony’s contradictions taking us farther and farther from any knowable truth, the story of Laurence Coly becomes all the more impactful. Rama and Laurence leave us haunted, unable to truly get a handle on this nightmare or ignore the monstrous potential – be it the capacity for infanticide or simply careless cruelty – that lurks within all mothers.

► Saint Omer is part of the Official Competition at the 2022 London Film Festival; it is screening on 10 and 11 October.

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