“A woman who has killed her baby can’t really expect any sympathy,” says Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda, “The Romanoffs”), who is accused of that very crime, in celebrated documentarian Alice Diop’s narrative debut “Saint Omer,” making its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. So, the logical question is, why would anyone watch such a film? Fortunately, Diop gives us many reasons.
Diop — whose 2021 documentary “We” (“Nous”), revolving around Black immigrant communities in the Paris suburbs, won top honors at the Berlin International Film Festival — doesn’t abandon her non-fiction roots. Truth also fuels her feature film. In it, well-spoken, educated Senegalese immigrant Laurence Coly, like the real Fabienne Kabou only a few years back, stands trial in quaint Saint-Omer in northeastern France for killing her 15-month-old daughter.
There to capture it all is pregnant novelist Rama (Kayije Kagame), who attends with the intention of weaving the tragic event into a literary retelling of Medea. What Rama encounters, however, is far more layered.
As Laurence (or “Madame Coly,” as she is often referred to) shares her testimony and undergoes cross-examination in a court where the jurors, judges, lawyers, and most of the attendees are white, the story that emerges is far more than that of a “monster” who commits infanticide. Malanda, who made her film debut in Jean Paul Civeyrac’s 2014 “My Friend Victoria” (and has somehow had no other big screen credits until now), delivers a performance that forces us to go deeper. Her ability to evoke sympathy for Laurence is quite remarkable.
Even as the details of potentially premeditated murder unfold, Malanda’s performance catches us off-guard with its vulnerability. Her ability to infuse Laurence with a fragility rarely attributed to a Black woman, regardless of nationality, is especially noteworthy, primarily because it forces us to ask why she did it rather than simply focusing on the crime itself.
But this important tonal shift in a narrative would not be possible without Rama’s presence. Portrayed by first-timer Kagame, Rama helps to uncover the nuances behind Laurence’s life beyond just her alleged crime. Because Rama is Black, educated and female herself, she provides a gateway to identify with Laurence and to see her the way another Black woman might.
From the beginning, Rama does not look at Laurence as a spectacle and, hence, reserves judgement until she gets to the courtroom. As the case goes on, Rama can’t help but see some parallels in her own life and worries about what horrors she might be capable of with her own child. And a lot of that is prompted by the implication that racism and white supremacy play an important role in Laurence murdering her daughter.
The spotlight on racism and the impact of white supremacy here would not be possible without Aurélia Petit (“Personal Shopper”), giving a powerful performance as Laurence’s attorney Ms. Vaudenay. Diop’s decision — along with her collaborators, noted French novelist Marie NDiaye, who is of Senegalese descent, and editor Amrita David — to allow Laurence to speak her truth as an African immigrant to France through her testimony (as guided by her attorney) is extremely effective. On the stand, she references the mental toll white supremacy places on people of color, even as a child growing up in a predominantly Black but once colonized country, to the fore.
Because Laurence’s mother Odile Diatta (Salimata Kamate, “The Intouchables”), who is present at the trial, wanted her to be successful, she forbade her daughter to speak Wolof, her native language, as a child. That move isolated Laurence from her peers, her people, her community, and it firmly reaffirmed the superiority of white France, which formally colonized her native Senegal until 1960. So it’s little wonder that newspaper headlines emphasized Laurence’s sophistication and command of French in their coverage. Rama learns over lunch that Diatta takes pride in that amplification of Laurence as well-spoken.
By also bringing attention to the incredible age span between Laurence and her child’s father, “Saint Omer” takes its societal critiques even further than just race. She is 24 and he 57 when they meet. While that 33-year age gap is not often questioned in movies, from a female perspective, it does not go ignored here. Luc Dumontet (Xavier Maly, “A Very Long Engagement”), through his court testimony, raises additional questions about specifically gender-related challenges for African immigrant women. Luc and Laurence’s perspective of their life together and individually is rarely in sync. In their relationship, Luc had the power, making it easier for him to lure in a young, vulnerable woman like Laurence.
Important questions of invisibility, societal value and importance are raised throughout the trial. Laurence’s world, it turns out, is far uglier than imagined. Consequently, her actions, while not excused, do have context. The pressure Laurence felt prior to her horrendous crime is something to which Rama can relate because she, herself, has a difficult relationship with her own mother, is having a child with a white man, and is a Black woman living in white France.
“Saint Omer” is not a perfect film. Diop’s inclusion of white people outside of the courtroom do not land as she intends. Putting France’s whiteness on trial is the meat of the film, which is re-emphasized as Rama replays excerpts of the trial in her hotel room. But once the trial gets rolling in “Saint Omer,” it is impossible to turn away. In her narrative debut, Diop has found a way to mix her hard-hitting documentary style with fiction to raise a mirror to society. This new arena, with its wider reach, makes Diop an exciting filmmaker to watch.
“Saint Omer” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Venice Film Festival.