This deeply nuanced treatise on the tragedy of motherhood marks the extraordinary feature debut of Alice Diop.
Th film Saint Omer, which premiered in the 2022 Venice Film Festival competition, is built around its clever handle on notions of suppression: suppression of information; feelings; certainty. Lauded documentarian Alice Diop’s first foray into fiction filmmaking carefully curates what is shown and what is not, as it toys with the viewer’s expectations by delaying character introductions, floating unclaimed voices into the frame, and focusing on half-truths turned whole by the human inclination to turn speculation into fact.
Based on the real-life case of Fabienne Kabou, a French-Senegalese Philosophy student who killed her 15-month-old daughter by leaving her to drown on a beach in northern France, the film takes place almost entirely inside a solemn courtroom. On the stand is Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanga), the fictional defendant accused of the very same crime committed by Kabou. In the public gallery is Rama (Kayije Kagame), a writer and professor attending the trial as research for a book about the myth of Medea, a Greek enchantress who symbolises feminine revolt.
In Diop’s film, the feminine revolt is a quiet, harrowing one. It sprawls from having to conform to the societal worshipping of motherhood, the same claustrophobic standards that earn women hypocritical badges of honour responsible for their tragic demise. Eyes lay on Coly as is ready to tear apart the same body that created and destroyed life, exemplifying in public the savage nature of mothering. A woman’s body is portrayed as inescapable, be it from the creatures who feed from their insides or the ones who are so easily willing to feed it to the ravenous mobs of the luminaries.
In its encapsulation of this claustrophobic existence, Saint Omer is about more that one “prison”. “Condemning her to a sentence is condemning her to madness”, roars Coly’s lawyer to a room of people with little interest in the possibility of repentance. Madness – another word so lightly thrown at women – is intertwined here with cultural and racial critique, the person on the stand made pariah not only for her crime but for challenging the existence that was expected of her. How dare she?
The perfected rhythms of her French raise suspicion. So does her degree in Philosophy and her well-spoken manner. These traits are hastily added to the evidence pile by the ones interested in maintaining the precious status quo, the crime at hand weaponised to reassure the privileged of their righteousness.
Nearly a third of mothers within mammal species kill their own spawn. The most common reasons for infanticide, however, arise from a primitive instinct to preserve. The haunting echoes of Saint Omer often sprawl from the notion that infanticide can come from an instinct to preserve the mother, instead, a taboo-breaking questioning that is realised with sobering tact by Diop. It’s a stunning film which stirringly builds a confessional out of the stones in the hands of merciless executioners.
Published 7 Sep 2022
By Mark Asch
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