Alice Diop's debut fiction feature Saint Omer is a haunting courtroom drama based on the real-life story of a young Senegalese Frenchwoman accused of murdering her infant
Motherhood is one of the cultural and institutional tenets of human existence – so what happens when this sanctified ideal turns ugly, twisting away from its life-giving orientation to something destructive? How can we understand why a mother would kill her infant daughter?
This question animates Saint Omer, a haunting journey into the disquieting recesses of undesirable, unassimilable motherhood. Inspired by the real-life trial of Fabienne Kabou (a Senegalese immigrant in France), the painstakingly restrained Saint Omer is framed around the fictional trial of Laurence Coly, an enigmatic murderer-mother brought to life by Guslagie Malanga, whose charismatically lucid courtroom monologues suck all the air out of the room like spiritual utterances.
We sit in the courtroom alongside Rama (a mostly-silent but incredibly magnetic Kayije Kagame), a writer observing the trial to furnish her upcoming book on the myth of Medea, perhaps history’s most famous ‘bad mother’. As the trial proceeds, the walls between Laurence and her dead daughter, the recently-pregnant Rama, and Rama's relationship with her emotionally estranged mother, begin to collapse: trauma passes osmotically between the cell membranes of two turbulent maternal bloodlines, building to a quietly dizzying release.
As celebrated documentary filmmaker Alice Diop’s first narrative feature, Saint Omer is steeped in the observational acuity associated with the most compelling works of non-fiction, while slowly, constantly sharpening the knife. Meticulously naturalistic but never clinical, it frays into a tapestry of unnerving psychological surrealism, leaving you infected with something hard to pin down, burying itself like a phantom under your skin.
Saint Omer had its world premiere at Venice Film Festival
Released in the UK 3 Feb by Picturehouse; certificate 12A