Saint Omer by Alice Diop is a harrowing and haunting political drama about the complexities of being a Black woman in a white society and the pressures of motherhood, inspired by real events.
La Mère et La Merby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Inspired by true events, Saint Omer is loosely based on Euripides’ Greek tragedy Medea and follows Rama (Kayije Kagame), a professor in a Paris university in the midst of writing a novel and commissioned to write about this trial.
She attends the trial of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) in the town of Saint Omer. Laurence is a young Senegalese woman, possibly a PhD student who has written a thesis on Wittgenstein, accused of killing her 15-month-old daughter by abandoning her to the sea on a beach in northern France. The words of the accused and witness testimonies challenge everything Rama thought she knew about generational trauma and motherhood.
Rama is shown as a university professor and author, an articulate, successful intellectual from a Senegalese immigrant background. Yet as the film begins, she is unable to communicate with her mother in a family setting. Laurence’s family background, life in France and character are revealed in long takes in the court room as she is interviewed by the inquisitorial judge (Valérie Dréville), observed in court by Rama, who is the only Black person in an all-white public. Laurence speaks quietly and thoughtfully in educated French and she is clearly a singular, complex, unapologetic, earnest woman, who at one stage raises the issue of sorcery, a non-Western concept dismissed by the judge. As a witness, her tutor’s opinion on her work is unconsciously racist.
The eloquent closing argument from the defence lawyer Maître Vaudenay (Aurélia Petit) is a moving statement pointedly delivered straight to camera. It is the only statement we see.
Director Diop says in Deadline Hollywood that Saint Omer is a political statement, about the complexities of being a Black woman and the pressures of motherhood. “This was an opportunity to create a portrait of a Black woman in all her complexity as I have rarely seen in film or read in literature, which is something I miss a great deal.
“I didn’t make this film particularly to deal with the subject of infanticide. It was to create these powerful characters that defy the imagined projections that people stick to when seeing Black women on screen. Another important thing about making this film for me was that it was an opportunity to show how much the Black body expresses and carries universal things. That narrative is carried by two Black French actresses in Saint Omer.”
Saint Omer delves into Black women’s pain and silence, their invisibility in a white society.
Though their two situations are very different on the surface, both Laurence and Rama are trying to understand, in their own way as Black women, their relationships with white partners, with white society, the aftermath of French colonialism and its mindset (Laurence speaks only French despite growing up in Senegal), and both their difficult relationships with their own mothers and motherhood. The film raises so many complex questions, which both come to tacitly and mutually acknowledge.
Click here for another very interesting interview with Diop on the website Girls on Tops.
Saint Omer was the richly deserved winner of the Silver Lion, Venice Film Festival’s runner-up prize. It builds on Diop’s sharply-drawn work as a documentarian – her most recent, Nous (2021), took an empathetic look at Paris’s underclass, she says inspired by James Joyce’s Dubliners. Saint Omer does this too, using a documentary effect but looking at the situation of Black women in France.
It’s harrowing and haunting. The unanswered questions it raises are personal and political. Should it be society on trial here instead of Laurence?
Saint Omer won best debut film and the Silver Lion at Venice (Diop received the Lion of the Future award), a Gotham Award for best international film, voted one of the five best international films by the National Board of Review, a DGA nomination for first-time director and is shortlisted for the International Feature Oscar. It screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 3 February 2023 in the UK.