Society has failed to unpack the madness of motherhood. The lifelong responsibility of caregiving is often reduced to smiling women cooing at babies on television and glossy Instagram photos of perfectly poised tots celebrating their birthdays or the holidays. Only when something unconscionable happens does anyone think to examine the tax of motherhood and how it might impact someone’s mental health.
In 2013, a 39-year-old Senegalese Frenchwoman named Fabienne Kabou sat her 15-month-old baby on the beach in Berck-sur-Mer, France, and let her get carried away by the sea. It was a horrific crime that shocked the country and fascinated documentary filmmaker Alice Diop, who was pregnant at the time of Kabou’s 2016 trial.
In her debut feature film 'Saint Omer,' Diop interweaves fact with fiction.
Saint Omer opens with Rama (Kayije Kagame), a stoic novelist focusing on her new book as the weight of her pregnancy and estranged relationship with her mother looms in the background. Seemingly unnerved by the impending birth of her first child, Rama puts her focus elsewhere, traveling from her home in Paris to Saint-Omer, where a young woman named Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanga) is on trial for infanticide.
Though Rama is watching the trail for her research on the Greek enchantress Medea, Laurence's story haunts her.
The trial reveals an overachieving immigrant who moved to France to study before slowly spiraling out of control. Laurence’s story begins to gnaw at Rama, forcing her to recall an isolated childhood, her distant single mother, and her fear of what’s to come for her own relationship with her child.
Much of Saint Omer is like a talking photograph, with long silences and pensive looks. Most of the action occurs in the wood-covered courtroom where witnesses, the judge, and lawyers fling out questions to one another, desperate to find some tangible motive from Laurence and concrete reason as to why she chose to end Baby Elise’s life.
Using actual transcripts from Kabou's trial to compose her script, Diop delivers an ultrarealistic film.
The shock of the crime is written on all the actors’ faces, especially Kagame, whose elegant demeanor wilts as the movie presses forward. Malagna is equally commanding as Laurence, replying to all of the questions asked of her with a polite but eery coolness that’s nearly unreadable.
As the judge and the prosecutor try desperately to determine what drove Laurence toward this choice, be it witchcraft, a mental break, or something else entirely, the audience realizes that the why isn’t the point of Diop’s film.
Since the We filmmaker chose to tell this story from Rama’s point of view, it offers a perspective toward Laurence that we wouldn’t ordinarily be privy to. A humanization that is typically only afforded to white killers. It is not to sympathize with Laurence but to allow the audience to understand the world as she may have. In court, constant racial microaggressions are lambasted toward her. Baby Elise’s father, an older married white man, continuously makes her feel othered, and as the timeline of her life in France is revealed, it becomes clearer how she may have been pulled to the edge of herself.
'Saint Omer' doesn't offer any answers but instead examines two strangers connected by trauma, one who can never undo what she's done and another who isn't sure she will be able to break her own familial curse.
As Saint Omer wraps, we don’t get to learn Laurence’s fate. Instead, we see Rama with her swollen belly, sending time with her mother, now with a new understanding of the emotional toll of motherhood and how she might seek a different path.
Saint Omer premiered Oct. 3, 2022 at the New York Film Festival.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic, consultant and entertainment editor. As a journalist, her work has been published in Netflix’s Tudum, EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum.