The journey of motherhood is a trial for every woman — no two experiences are the same. It is filled with moments of joy and relations, and moments of frustration and despair. Pop culture, and society, in general, have often portrayed motherhood as the ultimate achievement of a woman and a joyous experience that we should center our lives around. But it is often a singular, lonely journey that can be thrust upon you and turn your world upside down. Alice Diop’s first non-documentary feature Saint Omer shines a light on Laurence Coly’s (Guslagie Malanda) trial of motherhood while giving humanity to the inhumane.
Based on a true story of infanticide, Saint Omer follows Rama (Kayije Kagame), a novelist, as she attends the trial of Coly as she is charged with the drowning death of her 15-month-old daughter. But Rama becomes more than just a casual observer collecting material for her next book; as she takes in the trial, she must also confront her past and come to grips with her own connection to her mother. Rama, and the rest of the courtroom are drawn into the story of Coly, a student and Senegalese immigrant in France, who was dealing with the weight of upbringing and familial expectations while trying” to juggle a “relationship”, school, the hardships of being an immigrant and the burden of success and being a “model minority.” As Coly’s story is told through her testimony and that of the child’s father, Rama increasingly starts to see more and more of her own self in Coly’s life and isolation from her family and society.
Saint Omer is a subdued, gripping courtroom drama that pulls the viewers in and makes them confront their beliefs and biases. Because the film mainly unfolds inside the court, the viewer really has to use their imagination to visualize the happenings. This is storytelling at its finest — it is emotional and impactful and leaves you questioning. Who’s telling the truth here? Do we believe Coly as she herself tries to come to grips with what happened and why she did it? Do we let our cultural biases color who and what we give credibility to?
The story, which Diop helped write, is strong and intense, but the performances, particularly Malanda’s and Kagame’s, are really the heart of this film. These women’s performances are so raw and connected that we empathize with them, and it begins to feel as if we are no longer watching a film but the true-life proceedings of a case of a woman who committed such an inhumane (or was it?) act. Both women have a quiet, understated strength and eloquence these characters need. But Saint Omer is not just a strong story that confronts certain tropes with even stronger performances — the way the film itself was shot and brought to life on the screen also makes this a must-watch movie. From the haunting opening of the film and flashbacks to the closing arguments delivered straight into the camera as if we were sitting in the jury box having to decide this woman’s fate, this film feels almost palpable — it’s so real.
In the end, Saint Omer is an open-ended film — it leaves the viewer questioning and second-guessing. The film is not just about justice but also believability, broken women scarred by life, the burden of achieving “success,” otherness, loneliness, the plight of single mothers, illusions, moral responsibility, gender inequalities, and so much more. Diop gives voice to the invisible woman. This film lives in the space between truth and fiction…documentary and narrative. She drives home the fact that a mother and her child (particularly daughters) are forever, inextricably intertwined — we always carry within us our mothers and our daughters, and it is this that really connects the film to the viewer and allows us to find the humanity in the inhumane.