Updated: May 10
I remember reading about it in the news – or maybe it was my own mother, her speech marred with quiet horror, who used to tell me. ‘Woman throws her baby down garbage disposal.’ ‘Mother leaves newborn in train station locker.’ ‘Mother puts baby in washing machine.’
I was a kid, but old enough to sense the shivering way these headlines registered with a sickly, cold fear, a different kind of peril. Other stories of violence were never in shortage. But even with their bloodshed and broken glass, did they ever seize our imaginations as tightly? I remember how the words always felt like they were oiled, nauseous – slicked and heavy with the weight of a nation’s abject terror. So, so, so, sick in the head. A baby is ideological, and so is a mother. An infant is good, untarnished, vulnerable, and holy. But here is the open maw of terror: a mother who runs, who fails. Maybe a mother who kills.
In Alice Diop’s Saint Omer, we find ourselves in a courtroom where one such mother commands our attention. On the stand is Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda). A young Senegalese immigrant to France who once dreamed of becoming a philosopher, she has drowned her fifteen-month-old daughter at a beach and is on trial for murder. We observe from the sidelines alongside Rama (Kayije Kagame): an author attending the trial, she is currently writing a modern adaptation of the myth of Medea. Rama is also pregnant. This premise alone, it must be said, is enough to send goosebumps chasing down your skin.
If the walls here between mythology and reality, storytelling and witness-bearing, birth and death, and mother and mother already feel tremulously thin, that is the great achievement of Diop’s spellbinding, haunting film. Laurence is fictional, but her trial is based on that of the real-life Fabienne Kabou, a Senegalese immigrant who killed her infant daughter. Diop herself, in another parallel, attended Fabienne’s trial.
Saint Omer is acclaimed documentary filmmaker Diop’s first narrative feature – and her prowess in the realm of documentary here translates into the most astounding, dizzying fiction. It is fiction that seems to breathe so close to its audience, that distinctions between truth and invention, narrative and observation, all but evaporate. The mise-en-scène for the vast majority of Saint Omer is stripped back: composed of mesmerising long takes where the camera’s steadily observational eye fixes on Laurence as she speaks to the court for minutes at a time. One does feel as though Saint Omer might be a documentary, in the way that real life sometimes feels like a dream. The precise alchemy of Diop’s screenplay, and the almost spiritual, possessed power of Malanda’s performance – quietly building in turbulence like a wave, shuddering with the explosive depth of an ocean of feeling beneath – renders every single second utterly riveting. By the time Diop’s naturalistic lens has elegantly morphed into something eerie and otherworldly, the breath has been knocked from our lungs several times over.
In adversarial carceral systems, the accused must endure cross-examination designed to exhaust them, vilify them, and above all, force the unruly innards of human behaviour into uniform boxes of pre-ordained comprehension. The purpose of this feverish, colonizing categorisation: to imprison the unwanted behind bars, quarantined out of sight. What we can’t stand to face must be excised, and the wound cauterised. The body must be disinfected and made whole again.
When Laurence is asked plainly why she killed her infant daughter, she replies: “I hope this trial will give me the answer.” It’s a momentous sentence, signalling the arrival of a film about to commit an autopsy – or perhaps a total evisceration – of the criminal justice system. No one knows what to do with Laurence’s answer, because the language and infrastructure of the court is entirely ill-equipped: if their only purpose is to extract, diagnose, and accuse, what can they do with a woman who has already admitted to her crime? How can both court and criminal understand the ways Laurence was failed, isolated, dehumanised, and stripped of her autonomy in ways that followed her from Senegal to France? How can we understand what led her to the beach if we do not even have the language to ask the right questions? As the interrogation spins and spins, the failure of language becomes more and more apparent; colonialism is a ghoulish presence sensed but not parsed by the white members of the court.
A few years ago, something I heard in a lecture at university brought me back to my childhood and those headlines I read with my mother: the theory of ‘double deviance’, positing that women are punished more harshly by the criminal justice system than men who committed the same crime, because they are perceived to have deviated from gender roles – such as by committing a violent crime, or by being a mother who was also a criminal. Thus, a double punishment, if once was not enough: one for the crime committed, and once more because it is sacrilege to be negligent with one’s womanhood. It is feasible to be a bad person; it is incomprehensible to be a bad woman.
Remembering what it was like to stumble out of the cinema after watching Saint Omer, dazed and weak, I remember an entire bloodline of stories about bad mothers tinkling like chimes in my head, a chilling siren song. Perhaps no other film has infected me this badly. I felt like falling to my knees in its presence.
Xuanlin is a Singaporean film critic and curator based in Edinburgh, Scotland. They are passionate about queer, ecofeminist, and more-than-human perspectives in cinema which demand us to forge new solidarities and imagine ways of being in the world differently.
Xuanlin joined the Birds’ Eye View team in June this year as our regional Impact Producer, championing Reclaim The Frame events and films in Glasgow/Edinburgh – contributing to the programming, hosting events, and building audiences.