Mothers and mothering
Director Alice Diop’s 'Saint Omer' is preoccupied with what binds women together, the traumas that are inherited, shared and possibly overcome.
Much is made of the allowance to speak. Yet speech is never outside of the unequal distribution of power that not only constrains who is allowed to speak but also the terms of what can be said and how it will be heard. Particularly in his fiery first publication, Black Skin, White Masks (1952), Frantz Fanon diagnosed how language, French in the context of colonization, was a tool of political and cultural control. For French colonial subjects, the mere fact of speaking their colonizer’s language was subordination. This collision of language and power is perhaps concentrated nowhere more than in the law. The modern legal apparatus of the French state is determined by an inheritance of colonialism, imperial domination, racial oppression and persistent patriarchy. What could a black woman, Senegalese and a mother, expect of this law and these conditions of speech?
Alice Diop’s Saint Omer (2022) dramatizes this fraught position. After an impressive trajectory of almost two decades of documentary filmmaking, Diop’s first fiction feature is only a slight shift in form, extending the same concerns that have guided her work as a documentarian: immigration, gender, blackness, colonialism, and class. For her latest film, she drew directly from a headline tragedy. In 2013, Fabienne Kabou, a young woman studying philosophy, left her 15-month-old daughter—Adélaïde, but called Ada—to drown on a cold beach in Berck, in the north of France. The director was captivated by the story and attended the public trial, gripped by the similarities between her and Kabou, both of them being Franco-Senegalese and having children with white fathers.
Diop translated this visceral, uncanny fixation into a collaborative script. Saint Omer was written with Amrita David, her close collaborator and the film’s insightful editor who also attended Kabou’s trial, and the acclaimed author Marie NDiaye, whose earlier screenwriting credit was on Claire Denis’s White Material (2009)—a quite different engagement with French colonization. In their hands, Fabienne Kabou becomes Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), remains a philosophy student, and the heartbreaking nominal intimacy has her daughter named Elise but referred to as Lili. The fictional narrative also split the film’s focus between her and Rama (Kayije Kagame), a writer and professor pregnant with her own biracial child who sits in on the trial—not serving as a fictional avatar for Diop but drawing on her position as a witness in that courtroom.
Giving the film its title, the story stays in the north of France but moves from Berck to Saint-Omer. Across two hours, which mostly take place in the courtroom, the shared and distinct experiences of these two Franco-Senegalese, highly educated women crystallize Saint Omer’s central preoccupation: motherhood. This elegantly constructed film is a devastating archeology of mothers and mothering, which lays bare an ultimate horror—infanticide—without the comfort of a simple moral condemnation. Offering an ethical post-mortem, Saint Omer presents the mundane universalities of motherhood as a recognition that its incomprehensible, monstrous, extremities are also available to all, while critically contextualizing the effects of motherhood colliding with immigration, colonization, and blackness.
On the surface, Diop’s film might appear as a courtroom drama. Yet it sits uneasily within the constraints of genre, presenting less a fulfillment of a formula than a refusal of its protocols. If the normative expectations of a courtroom drama are theatrics, exterior spectacle, and a rhetorical development that leads to a definitive verdict, then Saint Omer is almost the opposite, breaking with these procedural conventions. What the film does express is the exhaustive claustrophobia of those circumstances, with a disarming patience that leaves the viewer in a chilly trance.
The sensitivity to distance and proximity Diop cultivated in her documentary filmmaking is reflected in the visual architecture of Saint Omer. Long takes shape the film’s slowly accumulating tension, revealing the hand of cinematographer Claire Mathon—who also worked on Mati Diop’s haunting love story and indictment of global capitalism set in Senegal, Atlantique (2019). Saint Omer is a work of unhurried portraiture, with Diop and Mathon’s orchestration knowing precisely when to let the camera be still and when to let it drift. Diop is also a studied filmmaker. Aesthetically legible and confirmed by the director in interviews are the influences of the distressing close-up portraits in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), the mannequin-like stillness of Robert Bresson, the confluence of lighting and grief in Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela (2019) and the dilated visual patience of Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries. The long takes of the courtroom in Saint Omer also privilege listening and strip down the spectacle. They heighten an awareness of the courtroom as inherently a space of performance and of storytelling, concentrating on the low frequency of visual and verbal exchanges.
While Diop has always been a literary filmmaker, it has never been as evident as in this latest film. The filmmaker is devoted to carefully calibrated language—which is reflected in Rama’s character being a writer, the collaboration with NDiaye in particular and the way the script was constructed by relying on the exact language of court transcripts from Kabou’s case. This collides with how Saint Omer deals with matters of language and the law. Laurence, as a defendant, is not invited but forced to speak in the courtroom. The legal structure invites a re-consideration of the exhausting framings of “voicelessness” for those excluded from systems of power, as though the only corrective would be in those same terms. Saint Omer stages a crisis of testimony that shows there is no universal benefit in “having a voice.” A platform to speak is not freedom. It is not a favor or a gift but in itself already a condemning sentence that cages her in the law of a state, whose brutal and disavowed history of colonialism on the African continent has everything to do with what she endured before the killing of her child.
The complex dynamics of the film make it so that even while Rama is professionally attached to words and language through her writing, her grace is that she is in that courtroom with the safety of silence. In fact, Rama says very little throughout the film, and is exemplary of how the powerful performances of both actors, Kagame and Malanda, are expressively embodied.
Further, as much as it relies on language, Saint Omer is also a circuitry of open and veiled gazes, stringing together complicities and hostilities marked in the act of looking. While any courtroom is a visual enclosure shaped by restraint and control, Diop and Mathon also create a precise and patient observational field. There is the only direct point of contact between Rama and Laurence in the narrative: when their eyes meet. This encounter takes place close to the end of the film, after Laurence’s mother Odile Diatta (Salimata Kamate) testifies to the truth of her daughter’s claims to have been influenced by maraboutage. A cut to Rama looking at the window carries into a breakdown of the scene, as Diatta’s voice fades away to be replaced with heavy breathing and an airy vocal soundtrack. The film seemingly dissolves into Rama’s distressed emotional and mental state, as a white man in the courtroom is heard speaking about the particularities of an African woman with the demeaning and othering tone of an anthropologist. This diffusion of the scene brings together cultural norms in Senegal, and much of West Africa, which are demonized, dismissed or otherwise illegible in the French context and a manifestation of the ethnographic white gaze in. As also emerged in the Kabou case, Saint Omer unveils the way colonial dynamics force the ordinariness of maraboutage and other cultural, spiritual, religious under the ignorant microscope of assumed Western rationality and scientific superiority.
This complex is what precedes the brief but stunning encounter between Laurence and Rama, where the former has a small smile, while the latter appears on the verge of tears and runs out of the courtroom. Their meeting of the gaze crystallizes the entangled forms of identification and alienation in the film. The stark difference between their emotional states in that exchange accentuates an irreconcilable difference in how they find themselves positioned: one is condemned to be in the courtroom and unable to leave, the other has come of her own volition and can exit when she needs to. What plays out in Saint Omer are also carceral and classed logics. Yet that point of contact is also a confirmation of their peculiar connection as misaligned doubles for each other. The uneasy parallel between Rama and Laurence is the key relationality in Diop’s film. In mechanical terms: they are both Senegalese and French, they are both highly and formally educated and have pursued knowledge supposedly beyond their scope, one was a mother the other will soon be, and the fathers of their children are white, French men.
Rama and Laurence are also united in stepping out of bounds, in having the audacity to master the knowledge systems weaponized against them. When Rama’s character is introduced, she is teaching. She first appears almost regally positioned behind a lectern and speaking to her students about the function of literature in confronting historical horror, through her reading of Marguerite Duras’s work on Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959, Alain Resnais). Rama’s upcoming book project, which is the reason she is sitting in on Laurence’s trial, also involves watching Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1969 cinematic adaptation of the Ancient Greek myth of Medea, who also committed infanticide. As emerges from her testimonies, Laurence’s scholarly endeavors were centered on the 20th century Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. In an expression of unchecked racialized condescension, a white French woman professor called on to challenge Laurence’s studies bases her suspicions on her choice of subject matter, wondering why someone like her would not have chosen a philosopher “closer to her culture.”
Saint Omer is a contestation of assimilation, particularly anchored to Laurence’s education and returning to the critical importance of language. The falsely flattering comments on her erudition from white French characters are only too evidently marked with demeaning surprise and in certain cases, hostility. In another scene, an exhausted Rama is stretched out on her hotel bed speaking to her publisher Jean-Claude on the phone. He notes his fascination with Laurence’s “remarkable” French. Rama immediately cuts through all the prejudices attached to this seemingly innocuous comment by replying that she is merely speaking like an educated woman: “that’s it.” Laurence herself speaks about her parents’ obsession with her education, revealing the pressures on an immigrant to measure up to the metrics of the country that colonized them. Her mother banned her from speaking Wolof so her French would be perfect and the auntie who initially introduced Laurence to the father of her child Luc Dumontet (Xavier Maly) wanted to impress him with her niece’s intellect. When Rama and Laurence’s mother meet for lunch, Odile initially has a brief flash of happiness at how much the affair is being discussed. She then notes her disappointment that her daughter spoke out of turn on that day—which is to say Laurence defended herself, rather than quietly accepting the paternalistic attacks launched against her—noting again education and good manners are the most important things. Rama and Laurence share in a difficult displacement, a dislocation from Senegal and Wolof without an easy belonging to France and French, which also speaks to classed aspirations and generational misalignments.
These parallels clarify the function of Rama’s character. She relieves the singular fixation that would pin down and isolate Laurence in the courtroom. Diop, David and NDiaye’s creation of Rama’s character is operative as part of how Saint Omer seeks to protect Laurence, to not leave her alone exposed to the gaze of white colonial law. Although the legal framework tries to force an absolute exposure, the film itself also somewhat conceals Laurence. This even occurs at the level of costuming—wherein there is a chromatic slippage between the color of the various tops she wears in the courtroom and the wood paneling behind her. While this could be read as her fading into the background, it also performs a needed chameleon-like camouflage. There is a connection here to Rama’s lecture on Duras, which includes clips of the French “shaven women” in the post-war period, who were publicly humiliated for their “horizontal collaboration” with Germans. What Rama says about memory, shame, and how language can transform a state of humiliation by conferring grace is also a larger claim on the work of aesthetics. In a similar move, Diop recuperates the tragedy in which Kabou was also publicly brutalized—in ways that were inevitably also marked by race and colonialism—and by way of retelling her story through Laurence offers a measure of grace that was impossible in the real case.
Saint Omer is constructed to both mine the complexities of systematic harm and individual horror while still caring for and protecting the mother at the center of it all, and refusing to let her be subjected to the violence of absolute exposure. Malanda’s performance as Laurence has a remarkable and steadying stillness, while the subtle movements of Mathon’s cinematography render her through a prismatic and mobile perspective. At the levels of both ethics and aesthetics, Laurence is allowed a state of fluid grace.
This hinges on Saint Omer’s disinterest in innocence. Although the film has an immense scope of preoccupations, the innocence of Laurence, or for that matter the notion of a stable truth or explanation for what she did are of little concern. It may not even be that she is unusually opaque but that understanding her motivations is simply not the labor of this film—which is instead devoted to attending to the entanglements of the various structures of power which placed her in that situation. During one of her testimonies, Laurence details the state of unlivable isolation and loneliness she experienced living with and being entirely dependent on Luc, the father of her child and three decades her senior. He barely recognizes the child and does everything to hide their relationship as well as Laurence’s existence. Diop crafts a full, complicated, historicized picture of Laurence, not to make her be legible but to correct the carceral containments of a legal framework which would force her into a narrow sequence of stereotypes.
Motherhood and maternity are the centrifugal force of Saint Omer’s attention to these complexities and the heart of the film overall. Had Laurence stayed in Senegal, it would not be the norm for a woman to experience motherhood in that degree of isolation—and her situation of finding herself completely alone to take care of Elise cannot be delinked from her alienation as a Senegalese immigrant in France carrying a specific colonial history. Diop’s film is alert to the vexed question of autonomy in relationship to motherhood—in terms of how structuring elements such as race, class, community, immigration and geography determine what forms of mothering are even available.
The film is woven through a multiplication of mothers. The cipher of motherhood is intimately linked to Saint Omer’s preoccupation with what binds women together, the traumas that are inherited, shared, and possibly overcome. The opening words of Saint Omer are Rama calling out for her mother, but in a dream, or a nightmare. As is the case for Laurence and Odile, their relationship is evidently fraught. In an early scene, Rama and her partner Adrian arrive at her mother’s home where everyone, including him, seems comfortable but she is evidently ill at ease, moving past the TV with an African show, a likeness of Mona Lisa—whose ambiguous smile is a tonal parallel for the film—school certificates and a photograph of her younger self seemingly unable to even know where to sit. While there is much to criticize in Adrian’s casual pathologizing of Rama’s mother—calling her “broken,” scarred by her life and emphasizing that Rama’s life is different—he does identify a tapestry of inherited pains, which shape both Rama and Laurence’s relationships to their mothers and their position as mothers to their daughters.
Although the connection is almost too banal and obvious to point out, given Saint Omer’s attachment to language it may yet be worth noting that in French the sea—mer—and a mother—mère—are homonyms. The evocations of Medea suggest the way Diop’s film casts Laurence’s abandonment of her child on a dark seashore in lightly mythic terms. The closing arguments from her lawyer accentuate this, calling her a “phantom woman, a woman no one sees and no one knows” and narrating a “slow disappearance and descent into hell.” The shape of the film might well be a descent into a hell of un-moralized self and collective knowledge, delinked from the objective of proving innocence to instead offer up an archeology of the irreconcilable forms of nurturing, care, resentment, betrayal, guilt, shame, uncertainty, and devotion that solder motherhood. The film creates breathing room for mothers to be afforded the grace of living with and through contradictions.
Saint Omer’s opens with Rama calling out for her mother and Laurence giving her daughter over to sea, and ends with Rama holding onto her mother, now pregnant with her own child, who is a parallel to Laurence’s. The thematic layers are thick and intermingled—considering, for example, that Laurence was initially on the path to study law. There is a density to the film’s sequencing of images, with the opening and closing shots bookending the ties between mothers and daughters. Saint Omer has weighty historical charge, revealing the diffuse ways that histories of colonial domination, racial hierarchies and their conjunction with gender collide in Rama and Laurence.
While these psychic dimensions are heavy, complex and ambivalent, they do not demand a clinical diagnosis or final resolution for what led to Laurence murdering her child. Saint Omer rather converges on the relational ripple effects, the communities of suffering and also of understanding, that is activated around this act. Diop has an elegant hand, approaching the singular in a way that refuses lazy universalizing yet finds ways to elasticize those particularities to illuminate shared territories of being.
There is an affinity with Audre Lorde’s conception of biomythography and the urgent need for black women to craft alternative ways of telling themselves. The almost mythic qualities of Saint Omer’s speaks to the subterranean narratives that shape and form all subjects, that always involve returns and revisions and are also the entrypoint for both examining relationships of power and seeking to change them. Saint Omer is an invitation to face how we live through myths that are not always of our own making but might be available for remaking. Diop’s films honor the potency of storytelling and the shared narratives that determine how we make sense of ourselves and each other, while maintaining the importance of the allowance for unknowability. This is a grace that merits summoning with particular care for complicated maternal figures.
Saint Omer ends with Nina Simone’s “Little Girl Blue,” a melancholy ballad from a magnificent black woman artist whose complexity, sensitivity and acuity unfurled in a challenge to being contained or simplified and embodied performances of impossible liberation. She was also an imperfect mother.