Saint Omer Movie Review: In Saint-Omer, France, in 2016, Fabienne Kabou, a French-Senegalese lady accused of killing her infant daughter, gave a terrifying testimony as experienced documentary filmmaker Alice Diop sat courtside. The infant was breastfed by Kabou before being laid out on the beach at Berck-sur-Mer, where she was left to perish in the incoming tide. Why did Kabou act in this way? In terms of assessing motive, Kabou’s responses (“It was simpler that way”) were vague and ultimately unsatisfactory.
Psychiatrists evaluated Kabou, who was diagnosed as paranoid but competent to face trial. Kabou claimed that her kid was in danger from wicked spirits. Diop, who was pregnant at the time and was born to Senegalese parents, was attracted to the trial almost like a magnet. Diop reflected on her own life, her mother, her upcoming motherhood, and the feeling of being a “other” in her native country after hearing Kabou’s testimony. This very moving personal encounter served as the inspiration for “Saint Omer,” Diop’s debut narrative film. And what an impactful movie it is.
What lessons can we learn from Kabou’s tale? What ideas are being communicated? Diop adamantly avoids answering these queries in her film. In contrast, “Saint Omer” just poses the questions, despite the fact that there is nothing “just” about this strategy. Diop enables the picture to connect with fears, even perplexity, and the undertow of subterranean influence by displaying the questions and the swirls of sympathetic association between Laurence (Guslagie Malanga), the accused lady in the dock, and Rama (Kayije Kagame), attending the trial.
Sometimes we don’t understand why something affects us. It suffices for an artist to know that the depths have been roused. Diop stated to Variety, “I wanted to reproduce the sensation I had when I had to confront my own uncomfortable realities while listening to another woman’s narrative. A series of emotional states that can result in catharsis had to be traced in the story. It resembles speeded-up psychotherapy.”
Rama, a professor, and writer are first observed delivering a lecture on Marguerite Duras (whose influence on “Saint Omer” is felt in its provocative silences, its centralizing of women, and its interest in what goes on in the so-called margins). Rama is a successful woman in a fulfilling relationship who is expecting a child. She is doing research for her future novel, which is a contemporary Medea. Another story, one that mirrors Medea, is playing out in Saint-Omer. Rama packs a little suitcase and heads to the town, possibly convincing herself that it’s all for research but truly not understanding why.
She is a lone figure in the courtroom, watching Laurence approach the witness stand. Her family is not there, and she has no links to the people or things around her. Our act of looking is same to Rama’s. Rama’s listening face, though, can occasionally be our most direct “way in.” Even while her replies convey trauma, panic, and indecision, Laurence relates her experience honestly.
The judge (Valérie Dréville) is eager to figure out what the heck happened, but she is perplexed by some of Laurence’s explanations. The atmosphere of the courtroom is permeated by a sense of Laurence as “other,” as something outside the “regular” range of French life. Defense attorneys intervene as prosecutors question and press their case. The original trial’s real court transcripts served as the basis for a large portion of the screenplay.
In a way, to describe what happens in “Saint Omer” is to take away from it its electrifying power. With no stylistic flourishes to distract from Laurence’s testimony and Malanga’s compelling performance, cinematographer Claire Mathon (who also shot “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”) alternates between a clear (yet beautiful) style and a more impressionistic style, weaving together dream-space flashbacks and home movie footage as Rama’s emotional life disintegrates alone in her hotel room, tormented by emotions about the baby in her womb, memories of her own mother, and (even though she was born in France).
In these sequences, Kagame does beautiful and heartbreaking work. The personal is entwined with the real crime component, and the courtroom is once again filled with the personal. The rhythm of “Saint Omer” is a two-way flow, which distinguishes the movie from a sensationalized account of a true crime.
The lives of immigrant groups, those “unseen” by the majority, and those thought to not be a part of French national life be it political, social, or cultural, are detailed in Diop’s movies, particularly the award-winning “We.” Beyond the prohibition on cameras in the courtroom, she chose to shoot “Saint Omer” as a narrative picture rather than a documentary.
She was more interested in her response to the case than the actual case itself. When she looked around the courtroom, she observed that most of the participants were female, she told W Magazine. What did the women discover in this tale? What solutions were they looking for? Diop said to Slant Magazine: “Because I didn’t understand [Fabienne Kabou] during the trial and I still don’t understand her now, I don’t understand her. Furthermore, the fact that I don’t comprehend her causes me to reflect on my own life.”
Even if true crime is currently experiencing a rebirth, the obsession with it is not new. Diop purposefully makes use of the numerous true crime documentary cliches while also subverting them. By doing this, “Saint Omer” expands to reflect on French society today, the experience of immigrants, and the shadows we carry with us when we enter a new environment.
Diop has expressed her respect for Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood because it explores the context of the crime as well as the evolution of American culture that contributed to the emergence of cold-blooded killers like Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. In light of all the evidence, asking “why did this happen?” is almost meaningless.
For her thesis, Fabienne Kabou, a Senegalese student who moved to France to attend university, studied Ludwig Wittgenstein. When Laurence reveals this to the court in “Saint-Omer,” the reaction is open amazement—even greater disbelief than the response to her crime. The judge and the attorneys find it difficult to understand why a Senegalese immigrant would be interested in an Austrian philosopher who was born in the 19th century.
Anyone with intellectual curiosity and an interest in understanding things outside the realm of personal experience finds their ignorance to be highly offensive.
They all believe she is lying about the subject of her thesis. The judge and attorneys might not be aware of Wittgenstein’s emphasis on the limitations of language, as stated in his famous phrase, “Whereof one cannot speak, therein one must be mute.”
When silence is allowed to exist, according to Alice Diop, it vibrates with echoes, and it is these echoes that are attempting to communicate with us. They are very vocal. We learn to listen from “Saint Omer.”