First, the real-life facts of the case, more shocking than you’ll find in most fiction: In November 2013, a mother took a train from Paris to the northern French coast, along with her 15-month old daughter. She checked into a hotel, walked down to the water at night, fed the hungry child, and left her to drown at high tide.
That mother, Fabienne Kabou, went on trial in 2016, where she acknowledged the killing and spoke of sorcery and witchcraft, but added: “Nothing makes sense in this story.”
Sitting in that courtroom was French documentary filmmaker Alice Diop. Like Kabou a woman of Senegalese descent, Diop had been fascinated by the case since she’d seen a grainy surveillance photo in a newspaper and felt that “I know her so well, I recognize myself.” She spent days sitting in the courtroom, staring at the woman in front of her, seeking to understand the impossible.
What emerged from that experience is the spellbinding “Saint Omer,” Diop’s debut feature, but really a film that exists somewhere in the space between documentary and scripted narrative, between truth and fiction. Most crucially, it's a film so original in approach that one feels only Diop could have made or even conceived of it.
Whether it answers the question that an empathetic defense lawyer asks the jury to consider — not whether, but WHY — is less clear. But the film, which Diop co-wrote with Amrita David and Marie NDiaye, peels back so many layers by merely asking it — layers of race, gender, motherhood, and the lasting effects of French colonialism, for starters — that in the end, you’ll likely feel an answer isn't really the point.
Diop begins with a mercifully brief scene on a dark beach, a woman walking, holding something, while the waves in the distance grow louder. The scene turns out to be a dream, experienced by Rama, a French novelist and professor, also of Senegalese descent. Rama is a proxy for Diop; she has developed an obsession with the infanticide story, and wants to base her next novel on it.
Soon Rama (a soulful Kayije Kagame), like Diop, is traveling to the coast and settling onto a bench into a wood-paneled courtroom (the film set was next door to the real courtroom) where defendant Laurence Coly, a fictional stand-in for Kabou, is facing a methodical but incredulous judge (Valérie Dréville).
Laurence is not the kind of defendant anyone expects — and that's part of what's both fascinating and troubling. She is highly educated, a fact that seems surprising to the media and to others. Even Rama's book editor back in Paris tells her he's heard Laurence speaks in a “sophisticated" way; Rama retorts that she speaks like any other educated woman.
Laurence's mother in Senegal, we learn, was obsessed with her education and upward mobility, and wouldn’t let her daughter speak the native Wolof language, only French. “Her obsession with my success tortured me,” she testifies. (In a heartbreaking moment, her mother, attending the trial, buys every newspaper she can, so proud is she that her daughter is generating headlines.) As for her father, he severed ties and stopped funding her studies in France when she switched from law to philosophy.
Lacking resources to survive, Laurence finally had to stop her studies and move in with an older white boyfriend, Luc, who hid their relationship from his own family. When she became pregnant, keeping the child against Luc's wishes, she withdrew completely from the world. When Luc is on the stand, the judge draws out how this supposedly devoted father didn't even attend the baby’s funereal — it was too far, the man complains. “It was very abstract to me.”
All the testimony is taken from the official record, brought to life by Guslagie Malanda as a maddeningly serene and utterly riveting Laurence, and a supporting cast of theater actors. The spectators are played by local townspeople, and the proceedings were filmed in chronological fashion, all contributing to a documentary-style feel.
But unlike a documentary, we're witnessing it all though Rama. She's horrified not only by the crime but by the prejudices, large and small, directed at Laurence — some that she herself experiences, as a woman, as a woman of color, as an academic in a white world — and as a daughter, with a mother who often treated her selfishly.
There’s another parallel between Rama and Laurence: Rama is pregnant.(Diop herself was mother of a small child during the trial, and has said the experience helped her healing process with post-partum depression). In bed one night with her partner, Rama tells him: “I’m scared I’ll be like her.” It’s her mother she is talking about, she clarifies. Or is it?
“I hope this trial will give me an answer,” someone says at the beginning of the film. If you think it’s Rama, or the judge, you’re wrong. It’s Laurence herself, admitting to a stunned courtroom that she has no tidy explanation up her sleeve.
Likewise, Diop refuses to wrap her film with a neat bow. In fact, she doesn't even tell us what sentence, if any, Kabou received (there’s Google for that.) But in her unique way, she has taken us further into the emotional, social and moral crevices of this real-life case than any documentary could. And we're much the better for it.
“Saint Omer,” a Super release, has been rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America “for some thematic elements and brief strong language.“ Running time: 122 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.