Look and See
This article appeared in the January 12, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Saint Omer (Alice Diop, 2022)
In 2013, Fabienne Kabou, a Senegalese-French woman, left her 15-month-old daughter to drown on the banks of Berck-sur-Mer. Efforts to make sense of the act—and, crucially, of the woman responsible—proved more revealing of white, Western press and their racial preconceptions. One frequently quoted account of Kabou declared that she possessed “remarkable intelligence” but was “subject to irrational beliefs.” (One might reasonably ask who decides what beliefs are irrational, or why intelligence should ever rid anyone of ingrained convictions.) Quite apart from the chilling nature of her crime, no one could seem to understand the woman behind it: a PhD student who spoke in such elaborate, sophisticated French that white publications could hardly disguise their awe.
The case captivated the French public, including filmmaker Alice Diop, known for her pensive, intimate documentaries, The Death of Danton (2011) and Towards Tenderness (2016) among them. Saint Omer marks her first foray into dramatic narrative, based on the 2016 trial of Kabou, who claimed that witchcraft had driven her to abandon her infant on the beach to be snatched away by the perilous tide. The film preserves the patient, observational ethos of Diop’s nonfiction, and the director generally honors the facts of the trial, borrowing much of the dialogue from the actual court transcripts. But drama offers Diop a distinct, especially lavish visual grammar, marshaled into a richly defined portrait of that clawing duality that haunts so many Black people the world over.
The film opens on a moonlit beach, where a shadowy figure, cradling a dark bundle, lumbers breathlessly over the sand; a rising tide, barely visible, strikes the shore nearby. The score, punctuated by a series of what sound like shallow breaths, seems to mimic the hushed soundscape of the prologue. Elsewhere, Rama (Kayije Kagame), a novelist and literature professor, journeys from Paris to Saint-Omer for the trial of Laurence Coly (the magnetic Guslagie Malanda), a graduate student accused of killing her 15-month-old daughter, Lili. Much of the film takes place in the courtroom, and is anchored in Rama’s somber brown eyes, downturned as if perpetually on the verge of tears. Rama, four months pregnant herself, has come to face a woman whose story bears a pronounced resemblance to her own. Laurence, too, is a lettered Senegalese woman with a predilection for philosophy (she fancies herself a “Cartesian thinker” and focused her research on Wittgenstein) and a fraught relationship with her mother. But as the judge describes the events that led to Laurence’s arrest, her face grows more impenetrable, carved in defiance. Laurence fleetingly loses her composure when one of her professors, called to the witness stand, muses, “Isn’t it rather odd: an African woman interested in an Austrian philosopher from the early 20th century? Why not choose someone closer to her own culture?” Laurence’s features seem to curdle: her mouth grows taut and her eyes harden as she falls to her seat, until the judge orders her to stand again. We sense how much her poise and embroidered French have been corralled into defense against a steady accumulation of indignities.
Otherwise, she replies clinically to the cross-examinations of the judge and the prosecutor, leaving both visibly frustrated with her explanations. The facts, as the judge presents them, appear to conflict with Laurence’s testimony, but do not necessarily prove her untruthful. Indeed, Laurence often contradicts herself. She claims she has always felt a “distance” from her mother, Odile (Salimata Kamate), but also that they spoke regularly even after she left Senegal for France; her childhood was “oppressive,” she says—her mother insisted on her fluency in French and forbade Laurence from speaking their native Wolof—but concedes in the same breath that she was well-cared-for, at least materially. Often, Rama’s troubled memories of her own mother intrude upon the courtroom scenes. Prolonged silences enshrine those melancholy girlhood sequences. Rama’s mother breaks this strained quiet only once, when she shrieks at her adolescent daughter, a trembling waif in bloodstained trousers, sending the child fleeing the room.
The film foregrounds a Black woman’s perspective—still an anomalous occurrence on screen—but what Rama finds in Laurence amounts, inevitably, to a trick mirror. Despite all the conditions that unite them—their Senegalese heritage; their older, white, French partners; their tense relationships with emotionally remote mothers from whom they have inherited their own ambivalent maternity—Laurence remains as opaque to Rama as she does to everyone else. As she relays her far-from-straightforward version of events, Laurence admits that she cannot explain why she killed her daughter. “If I’m lying, I can’t know why,” she says. Rama, observing from the gallery, could not hope to divine her veracity based on their common biographies. A climactic moment seals the distance between them: Laurence meets Rama’s sheepish gaze and cracks an unsettling smile, as if they have just exchanged an unspoken joke. The gesture sends Rama flying out of the courtroom in tears, just as her mother’s words had done all those years earlier. The likeness between the two women yields no hallowed meanings; Laurence remains inscrutable, perhaps even to herself.
In that way, Laurence vividly restages for Rama those primal years with her mother, mired in silence and an impossible distance. Suspended between imminent motherhood and eternal daughterhood, Rama likely sees in Laurence a nightmarish specter of both. In fact, in her closing remarks, the defense barrister (Aurélia Petit) suggests that all mothers are “chimeras,” for whether or not women bring their pregnancies to term, they forever carry the cells of both their children and their own mothers alike. And yet, there exists no greater chasm than the misrecognition between mother and child. Later, in the arms of her partner, Rama whispers, “I’m afraid I will be like her.” After a charged pause that seems to invite her to say “Laurence,” Rama instead asserts: “my mother.”
Deprived of the dramatic confessions, twist endings, and unforeseen culprits endemic to the courtroom genre, we are tasked, like any jury, with making sense of inconsistent testimonies. Laurence reveals that during her pregnancy, she suffered from mysterious physical ailments and hallucinations that convinced her of otherworldly forces at work against her. Odile contends that Laurence’s departure from Senegal surely incurred this “curse.” But there is also the suggestion that the police investigator unwittingly supplied Laurence with this defense when he asked her to “draw on her culture” to explain her actions. In doing so, he raises a key question: how could Laurence possibly translate her interiority into a colonial tongue?
bell hooks famously wrote, “Language is also a place of struggle.” Language is a central thematic preoccupation of Saint Omer, which Diop co-wrote with the film’s editor, Amrita David, and French-Senegalese author Marie NDiaye (a fitting partnership, given that NDiaye’s fiction is populated by despised and unwanted children). It quickly becomes clear that Laurence is a woman at once estranged from and trapped within language. Like so many immigrants and their children, she has “lost” her indigenous tongue and operates principally within a lexicon not naturally disposed to illuminate her cultural experience: forever straddling two nations, she is alienated from one by language and from the other by race. Consider, for example, that “sorcery” or spirituality has always been conceptualized differently by African cultures, particularly those forged into syncretic traditions, like rootwork in the Southern United States, or, for the Senegalese, maraboutage. These decidedly ambivalent forces—neither good nor evil, but rather, a negotiation with the extraordinary—are so illegible to the Western ear that even the film’s English subtitles translate maraboutage somewhat imprecisely as “evil eye.”
Perhaps Laurence wields this defense cynically; after all, she says that the time she spent being pregnant and subsequently as a mother were the worst years of her life. If she does play in the space between her true self and French society’s racialized perception of her—defying them with her intelligence and bemusing them with her accounts of the supernatural—it changes little about her position. The French language does not have the capacity to honor the complexity of Laurence’s experience. No matter how “sophisticated” Laurence might be, she cannot be interpreted within the confines of the colonial imagination. In this alien speech, something is always missed in the chasm between her interiority and the words available to her, however ornately she might brandish them. It would be impossible—in any language and certainly to most cultures—to explain killing one’s child. But neither can Laurence find the words to characterize the depth of her isolation, invisibility, and hopelessness. The prosecutor chides Laurence for her “persistent ambiguity,” to which she responds, “Some things we can’t be clear about.” Language is also a place of struggle.
Kelli Weston is a Brooklyn-based film programmer and critic whose work has appeared in Sight and Sound, The Guardian, and Reverse Shot, among other publications.