Saint Omer Has Secured Alice Diop’s Place as One of France’s Best Filmmakers

Alice Diop made her name making subversive documentaries about multicultural working-class France. Her latest film, Saint Omer, fictionalizes a trial that led to a national scandal: a Senegalese-born woman who claimed witchcraft led her to murder her child.

Kayije Kagame as Rama in Saint Omer. ( Les films du losange, 2022)

In 1985, the French newspaper Libération sent the celebrated writer Marguerite Duras to cover a sensational crime captivating France: the death of a four-year-old boy, “little Grégory,” in the Vologne, a river in the east of the country. What made this case so shocking to onlookers was that the child was presumed to have been murdered and disposed along the riverbank by his mother, Christine Villemin. Though Villemin refused all interviews, Duras, after visiting the outside of the family’s home in Lépanges, declared with trancelike conviction that she knew “instinctively” Villemin had done it from the sight of the rural locale alone. In the scandalous write-up that followed, still notorious in France, Duras reimaged Villemin, who was later convicted of all charges, as an innocent woman in a novel that fixated on the mother’s “sublime” character, and treated the whole episode as an opportunity to reflect on the complexities of female agency.

In 2016, when the filmmaker Alice Diop began attending the real-life trial of French-Senegalese woman Fabienne Kabou, accused of killing her fifteen-month-old infant by abandoning her body on the beach in Berck in northern France, she feared she was herself reproducing, in her words, “some Duras bullshit.” In her fascination with the crime’s events, Diop was anxious that, like the legendary author with Villemin, she was broadcasting all manner of assumptions and projections onto an unknown woman whose official legal sentence was forthcoming.

Yet Diop was not alone in her fabulation. The specific case of Kabou confounded French onlookers, too. She was a black woman capable of “the unthinkable,” but she was not working class. Her speech, a hyper-literary French, signaled at her bourgeois education but flummoxed observers incapable of imagining that a black woman from a bourgeois background could . . . act like a bourgeois woman.

Initially, Diop claimed, she had zero intention of adapting Kabou’s extraordinary story. Until 2016, she had made a career as a successful and well-respected documentary filmmaker whose ambition was to depict multicultural and working-class French society with more complexity and nuance than was hitherto common. Her early films (Danton’s Death, On Call) — commendable in their attempts to lend marginal identities some dignity long before anyone in France was doing similarly reparative work — were earnest, slightly didactic portraits of marginalized populations excluded from postcard representations of the French Republic.

Diop’s 2021 panorama of a Parisian suburb grouped around a popular commuter line, We (Nous), hazarded a different path in its blend of autobiographical and sociological material, and in its evenhanded snapshots of all facets of the French political spectrum. Monarchists, leftists, and migrants were all brought into the view. This broadening of attention also seemed to signal a new interest in complexity as opposed to a more sentimental — bordering on evangelical — concern with humanizing her subjects.

In making Saint Omer, which uses much of the original court transcripts from Kabou’s trial (weaved through a sophisticated screenplay cowritten with the novelist Marie NDiaye), Diop has continued down the path of trying to understand the wild opacities of other people without fetishizing them or reducing them to easy saintly archetypes. That the film is technically fiction where her others have been labeled as nonfiction is not relevant to her: the commitment to observing people at the fringes of respectable society is consistent across Diop’s work.

Saint Omer, like the accused subject at its center, is an enigmatic, cerebral, and occasionally opaque film. Subverting all clichés of the “courtroom drama,” it begins in semidarkness, on a northern beach where Diop’s fictionalized version of Kabou, here renamed Laurence Coly and played by Guslagie Malanda, allegedly deposited her daughter so that, in her own words, “she would be carried away by the sea.”

Our guide throughout the film is Rama, a (fictional) middle-class black pregnant woman with a glittering career as a writer and a lecturer who, like Diop before her, finds herself compulsively attending Coly’s trial in the small provincial town of Saint Omer, thinking that it might unblock something in her new novel. Rama’s character responds to Coly’s maddeningly cryptic speeches in court with stark visceral symptoms. She throws up in the local hotel room she has booked and worries that she, too, might do harm to her child. Through her, Diop creates a barrier between Coly and the viewer that prevents the trial from descending into spectacle like its real-life counterpart.

As we watch Coly thwart all prosecuting efforts on the stand to pin down her motives or to explain the inexplicable, we find ourselves drawn to Rama and the emotional distress that the trial is inflicting on her. Coly, a frustrated intellectual and the victim of a difficult relationship with an older white man unsupportive of her talents, is a “failed” version of Rama. The writer’s anxiety is perhaps that the border between bourgeois success and criminal insanity is thinner than it might appear.

An early scene depicting Rama giving a lecture in a university setting, on the work of none other than Marguerite Duras, makes explicit Saint Omer’s literary obsessions. (Diop has said that she continues to remain more inspired by writers and novelists than by fellow filmmakers). In this opening scene, Rama asks her students to analyze a key scene from Duras’s screenplay for Alain Resnais’s 1959 film Hiroshima mon amour, in which French women are shown with their heads shaved for pursuing affairs with Nazi soldiers during the German occupation of France. Suggested here is that Rama shares the author’s fascination with diffuse female characters who can inhabit both sides of the victim/perpetrator divide.

Coly’s character, whom another filmmaker might have made an abject monster beyond redemption, is similarly handled with tact, as well as dispassionate remove. Though she admits to having committed the crime, she refuses to categorize herself as either guilty or not guilty. Instead she suggests enigmatically before the prosecutor that she is not “the only one responsible.” It is difficult to know whether Coly is referring here to the humiliating racialized dismissal of her professors, who wanted her to drop her doctorate on Ludwig Wittgenstein and study something “closer to her own culture,” or to the shadowy figure of her ex-partner, a man who refused to have anything to do with their child and kept her a secret from both his children and his wife.

Either way, Diop treats Coly’s crime as a source of mystery as opposed to a brute act of fury or a clinical psychotic episode, enraging the officiously fact-checking sensibilities of the prosecution. At one point Coly riffs, brilliantly, on the coastal scene the night of the child’s death: the moon lit a path before her on the sea as she placed her child on the shore to be embraced by the rising tide. This poetic monologue is interrupted by the prosecutor, who interjects that the tides were not high enough at the time for her story to be true. Why did you kill your daughter?, they harangue her repeatedly. I don’t know, she replies, with genuine curiosity. I’m hoping that this trial will help me to find out.

Duras, attacked on multiple fronts for her “insane,” “fantasist’s” essay about Villemin — which she never intended as a character assassination, but rather as a meditation on the innate amour fou of motherhood — refused to apologize for her unique intervention into the Villemin affair. “The real problem remains that of women, women’s quest for meaning in the lives they live and didn’t desire,” she wrote in a staunch follow-up response. The ending of Diop’s film seems to side with similar, perhaps over-general abstractions.

Saint Omer concludes with a frantic and impassioned speech delivered by Coly’s barrister, who appeals to Coly’s status as a woman first and foremost. The defense lawyer speaks of the “chimerical” nature of female subjectivity, quick to break down and migrate across borders, and implies that any woman in the room might have been tipped to commit a similar crime, if pushed to their limits of endurance. Yet how many women might seriously claim, as Kabou/Coly did, that they were acted on “by sorcery” and that their frustrated lifelong ambition was to become a “genius philosopher,” “like Descartes”?

In her own passion for the vagaries of Kabou’s trial, Diop called bullshit on herself at New York Film Festival last autumn. Yet perhaps there is more value to be found by staying in the bullshit as opposed to satisfying the thrills of “relatability” in the final act of Saint Omer. Doing so would have been more faithful to the truly extraordinary, and unrelatable, nature of a figure like Kabou — a genuinely incomprehensible person that resists in equal measure racist caricatures and identitarian recognition.