A courtroom drama is all about getting to the truth. “You can’t handle the truth!” shouted Jack Nicholson from the stand in A Few Good Men, and maybe that’s sometimes the case. Mostly, though, we just can’t understand the truth. Saint Omer turns the legal drama of courtroom movies on its head by peering straight into the mysterious void of the human heart and finding more questions than answers.
Alice Diop’s film takes a true crime case and depicts it with intense formalism and rigid accuracy, only to discover the same impasse which haunts nearly every crime (and every person) — you can’t really know what’s going on in someone else’s head. The film is based on the infamous Fabienne Kabou trial in France, in which the Senegalese woman was tried for abandoning her baby daughter on the coast at high tide. In recreating the case, Saint Omer becomes as beguiling and enigmatic as a legal drama can get, leading to its inclusion on the Oscars’ shortlist for Best International Feature.
Saint Omer Is About the Fabienne Kabou Trial
Before going to the sub-prefecture of Saint-Omer and entering its courthouse, the film spends some time with Rama (played by Kayije Kagame). Rama is a professor and novelist who seems adrift and detached from her surroundings. Perhaps she feels too Black for cold, white academia, and too French for her family of Senegalese immigrants. Fiercely intelligent, pregnant, and in a mixed-race relationship, there are haunting parallels between Rama and Laurence Coly (the film’s stand-in for Fabienne Kabou).
Coly is on trial for infanticide. Living in Sant-Omer by way of Dakar, Senegal, Coly is a very intelligent former philosophy student who entered into a relationship with an older white man, became pregnant, and hid away. Emotionally distant from her own mother and strangely aloof, Coly seems like the nightmare version of what Rama could become. Just like Diop did with the actual trial of Kabou, Rama visits the courthouse and watches the proceedings, believing she’ll write a book on this modern Medea. Aside from Coly’s mother, Rama and Coly are the only Black women in the room.
Though she’s admittedly a murderess, there is something slightly uncomfortable about watching Coly be emotionally poked and prodded, if not brazenly badgered, by a group of powerful, robed, old white professionals. Rama recognizes this.
On the witness stand, her old professor condescendingly disregards Coly’s choice to study Wittgenstein, suggesting she should’ve written a thesis on someone closer to “her own culture.” Sorcery, witchcraft, and female genital mutilation are all discussed by the lawyers, who anthropologically distance their enlightened minds from the so-called ‘third world’ culture of Senegal. In these ways and others, Saint Omer subtly interrogates French society and the inherent post-colonial racism that exists beneath their supposed liberal values.
Alice Diop Recreates Reality in Saint Omer
Once Saint Omer enters the courtroom, it mostly stays there. Using lengthy, unbroken shots which generally isolate one character in the frame, Diop recreates the trial almost word for word. Far from the legally inaccurate, unrealistic antics of most movies with lawyers and trials, Saint Omer is subdued and minimalist in its presentation. Guslagie Malanga, playing Coly, is mesmerizing to watch, standing straight and fixing her gaze in an almost sculptural performance. She is the phantom haunting this film, ensuring that Coly (and Kabou) remains neither a mere monster nor some societal victim, but rather a mystery.
Diop blurs the line between documentary and fiction film techniques throughout her career and continues to do so here, even if this is technically her first fiction narrative feature. As mentioned, Diop was the one who originally attended the Kabou trial. She films Saint Omer in the same courtroom where that trial took place, casting citizens of Saint-Omer to fill the room. She uses court transcripts for her dialogue and essentially inserts herself as the Rama character, the artistic witness who watches and interpolates the case as our audience stand-in.
True Crime and the Mona Lisa Smile
It’s all very effective, and yet proves a melancholic little point, that no matter how ‘true’ true crime gets, there’s only so much we can ever understand. Coly herself, like Kabou, is self-contradictory — she loved her child, but she left her to die; she’s a philosophical intellectual, but she claims to attribute her actions to witchcraft; she’s stone-cold, but then breaks down in tears. More than her story not holding up, it’s as if her whole existence doesn’t make sense. How much sense can anyone ever make of infanticide?
In one scene, the only time Coly acknowledges Rama, they lock eyes and the murderess flashes the subtlest of smiles. It’s a reference to the Leonardo da Vinci painting La Belle Ferronnière, where a woman with an extremely straight posture turns her head slightly and reveals the smallest of facial expressions. Diop and Malanga used that painting as a reference, though da Vinci’s Mona Lisa also appears in the film. The term ‘Mona Lisa smile’ seems synonymous with Saint Omer; just like that expression, there’s an eerie, enigmatic mystery behind the human artifice in this film.
The Cast and Camerawork of Diop’s Saint Omer
Guslagie Malanga and Kayije Kagame are excellent as Coly and Rama, respectively. Malanga took tai chi lessons for the film to control her breathing, and is actually an art curator; Kagame is a performance artist and author. Their unique backgrounds, far removed from celebrity star power, heighten the formalist strangeness of Saint Omer, and they never drift toward melodrama or theatrics.
Cinematographer Claire Mathon continues her incredible streak of visually distinct films, with Saint Omer following Spencer, Petite Maman, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and Atlantique. While this is hardly the flashiest of Mathon’s work, she builds a quiet intensity with her fixed camera and long takes. Dressed in brown and dwarfed by the brown wooden walls of the court behind her, Malanga’s face pops and stands out in the monochrome, giving her dialogue more power. It’s always clear that Mathon knows what she’s doing.
The same might not be said for Diop, though that’s kind of the point. The audience is never really sure what the director is doing in Saint Omer, because the film is intentionally about the mystery in our motives. We watch this film through a glass darkly, confronted with the real impenetrability of others. Diop seems thematically clearer when the film is confronting cultural, familial, and racial elements, and exploring the people who get forgotten or condescended to in society. But when it comes to Coly, Kabou, and crime, the mystery is kept.
Saint Omer is produced by Srab Films and co-produced by Arte France Cinéma and Pictanovo. Super is distributing the film for its theatrical release on January 13.