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Saint Omer 

Directed by Alice Diop 

Review by Danielle Papamichael 


The renowned documentary filmmaker, Alice Diop, excels in her narrative feature debut Saint Omer, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 2022. 

The film is based on the chilling true story of Fabienne Kabou, a French Senegalese PhD student, who in 2016 confessed to murdering her fifteen-month-old daughter. Kabou left her baby on the beach of Berck-sur-Mer to be drowned by the incoming tide, having convinced herself that the act was forced on her by witchcraft. 

Diop’s take on the legal drama genre is refreshing. She manages to avoid overused cliches by reflecting on the act itself rather than focusing on the motive. Diop tackles a number of heavy themes: postnatal psychosis; transgenerational trauma; racism; complicated mother-daughter relationships and mixed-culture identity. In forcing these uncomfortable truths into the mainstream, she introduces voices that are usually silenced.   

Diop, an academic who is also French Senegalese, was pregnant at the time of the trial and became so obsessed with the case that she attended the court with no intention of making a film. In court, Diop sat next to a white female journalist and hearing Kabou’s testimony, both women broke down in tears. At that moment, she understood the story’s emotional, universal truth.  

The question of universality is something Diop tries to address in all of her films. It was important, she says, ‘to offer the black body the possibility of saying the universal. I’ve always intuitively thought this was the case, but politically, it seems to me, it’s not yet accepted.’

In pursuing this story, Diop abandons her usual documentary style. Partly scripted from court transcripts, the film follows pregnant Rama (Kayije Kagame), a best-selling author and academic who lives in Paris and who is a fictional stand-in for Diop. Rama travels to the deprived town of Saint Omer to follow the trial of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) with the intention of writing a piece comparing her story to the Greek tragedy, Medea. However, as the trial unfolds Rama becomes transfixed by Coly, and is forced to reflect on her relationship with her own mother, as well as the fact that she is soon approaching motherhood.

The long and demanding scenes, with complex female characters at their heart, are set up by the impressive cinematographer Claire Mathon, who previously worked on Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019). In Saint Omer, Mathon draws the viewer into the strange and alluring gaze of Rama and Coly and their subtle expressions are interrogated and amplified. Saint Omer exudes pure, shattering brilliance. It’s a layered tragedy that uses the power of silence and restraint to compel its audience to look deep into themselves.  It is poetically mesmerising in some ways and brutal in others. Saint Omer represents the unrepresented, shining a light on the multifaceted French immigrant experience. Not only will you be deeply moved but I guarantee you will remember this profound film forever.