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  • Writer's pictureMax Markowitz

Saint Omer

Most Gentle Film Of 2022

In 2016, brilliant documentary filmmaker Alice Diop, traveled to the town of Saint-Omer to attend the trial of Fabienne Kabou, a French-Senegalese woman accused of killing her infant daughter. Kabou breastfed the baby before laying her on the sand of the Berck beach and leaving her to the rising tide under the bright moon. Why did she commit such an unspeakable act? Kabou’s answers were equivocal and ultimately useless in determining motive. Kabou was examined by psychiatrists and was declared paranoiac but was able to stand trial. Kabou spoke of sorcery threatening her baby. Diop, a French woman born to Senegalese parents and pregnant at the time of the trial, was drawn to the testimonies like a nail so hammered into the wall, you’d have to remove small chunks of the wall just to get it out. The trial made Diop reflect upon her own life, her relationship with her mother, the impending arrival of her own child, and being ostracized in her homeland. Saint Omer, Diop’s first narrative feature is a gorgeous, psychologically ruining yet gentle and non judgemental masterpiece.

Kayije Kagame’s Rama (Diop) and Guslagie Malanga’s Laurence Coly (Kabou) never speak to one another. There’s no need. Saint Omer is an observational experience more than anything else with very little music and mostly takes place in the courtroom. Most of Saint Omer is dialogue but it never feels like a play. It feels like a trial. It feels as though WE THE AUDIENCE are on trial. We deserve to feel that way. We’re all responsible in ways we can’t fully understand for carrying out the kind of society that led Coly to do what she did. Most of her misfortunes are racially motivated and that’s a big part of Saint Omer but it’s so much more than that. It’s this pressure. The pressure to provide people with what they want from you. The pressure to be the kind of person who thinks a certain way and operates a certain way and when you can’t (Or won’t) be that person anymore, the world closes in on you and makes you suffer for it.

Coly looks as though she hasn’t slept in forever. She’s completely drained of all life or hope. Coly’s eyes remind me of Christian Bale in The Machinist. Fully and utterly defeated but not indifferent. Coly’s mother, the older white married father of Coly’s dead daughter, and a former professor all testify. None of them are on her side. They don’t directly point the finger. They suggest things in passive-aggressive ways. The sincerity of racism in many of their remarks is absolutely undeniable. Coly’s mother is the most memorable of the witnesses. She’s always lived through her daughter and forbade her from ever speaking her original language because she wanted her accent and manner of speaking to be perfectly french. Coly was once referred to as an oreo because she’s said to be seen as “A white woman in a black body”. That definition of oreo is never said but the context is so apparent and as a viewer, the line’s delivery will make you feel you are sinking into the ground. Extremism can be shocking but that’s part of our ignorance. It’s completely normal for so many others because that’s their world and not ours.

Coly’s mother (Sensing that Rama is a journalist) insists on taking Rama to lunch. “Did you see all the press and media coverage?” she asks with a beaming smile. The woman’s daughter is on trial for murder and it’s FUN for the mother. She shamelessly takes multiple newspapers and magazines at a store next to the restaurant, seeing it as a triumph. Rama watches her pay for them with glee. Rama later has a mental breakdown in her hotel room after which she lies on the bed so still that you can see the little particles of dust floating around her. She slowly touches the bottom of her stomach and breathes heavily.

Like Coly, Rama’s pregnant by a white man, only they’re married while Coly was a mistress and Rama’s husband is loving and attentive. He travels to Saint Omer after her breakdown and the two hold each other tenderly in bed. She lies on his stomach as he rubs her back.

“I’m scared I’ll be like her,” Rama says. “Who?” asks her husband. “My mother,” Rama answers. “Your mother is a broken woman,” her husband says kindly. “Scarred by her own life. This case has nothing to do with you.” The case of course has everything to do with Rama. It’s not even that her husband doesn’t understand this, he’s just being kind. Rama knows that anything she says he’ll acknowledge her feelings. She’s just so weak and broken at this moment. Pregnancy is generally very melancholic and Rama’s is clearly no exception. They then start to discuss Coly. “I was obsessed with her,” Rama confesses. “I didn't even think of the child once”.

By the time the trial comes to a close, how much empathy most people have for Coly within the court is not clear but universally, painfully apparent. “She tried to do the right thing” Coly’s attorney pleads to the jury. “She tried to fight, to keep going but she lost. This is the story of a phantom woman. A woman nobody sees.”

The ocean is strong and powerful but also gentle, soothing, and tender. Watching Coly walk with her baby towards the water with such calmness, it’s as though she’s giving her child to a mother who can take better care of her than she can. What drives one towards this kind of thinking? Why does everything always have to crash and burn for some people and not others? Your reality makes you who you are. Any of us could easily be something very different. “Perhaps all women are monsters,” Coly’s attorney says. “But we are all terrible human monsters”. Saint Omer has just been added to the Criterion Collection and so it is now available to stream on Amazon Prime. The most gentle film of 2022 is not to be ignored. Its silent tone forces us to observe and encourages us to care.

(2023). SAINT OMER (2022) PHOTOS + POSTERS FAVORITE MOVIE BUTTON. Retrieved February 16, 2023, from

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