In trial film ‘Saint Omer,’ rich reflection arises from restraint

Based on the real-life 2013 case of Fabienne Kabou, a woman who was accused of killing her own baby, the drama screens at the Detroit Film Theatre this weekend

Jan 23, 2023 at 1:58 pm
click to enlarge Kayije Kagame stars as Rama, a writer interested in the trial of Laurence Coly, a fictionalized version of the real-life 2013 case of Fabienne Kabou. - Srab Films / Arte France Cinema
Srab Films / Arte France Cinema
Kayije Kagame stars as Rama, a writer interested in the trial of Laurence Coly, a fictionalized version of the real-life 2013 case of Fabienne Kabou.

Courtroom dramas are known for their bombast, but Alice Diop’s new film Saint Omer — playing the DIA’s Detroit Film Theatre this weekend — is about as stylistically contained as they really come. Centering on the dour proceedings in the trial of a French-Senegalese woman named Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) in the French city of the film’s title, the film observes the collision of seemingly plain fact with confounding, subjective contradiction. Building on the real-life 2013 case of Fabienne Kabou, Saint Omer examines the case of her fictional analogue in Coly. Having confessed previously to the killing of her own young daughter, she surprises the judge early on by pleading not guilty on the day of the trial itself.

It’s less the events that are in dispute than Coly’s own recollection of them: a subjective elision which becomes all the more germane for her being the case’s key witness against herself. As Coly testifies newly that she doesn’t consider herself “the responsible party” in the murder, Diop’s stays raptly on her steadily delivered, deeply beguiling defense of herself — departing from Malanda’s performance only to capture the transfixed reactions of those attending the hearing or to capture a question from an interlocutor. (There’s brief space, too, outside the hearings in moments in which the court adjourns). With Coly asked by the judge to “please explain” her point of view, Diop presents this task as fraught with mystery and complication, recounting the story of one’s life far easier said than done.

Among those attending is Rama (Kayije Kagame), a four-months-pregnant French-Senegalese writer and professor attending the trial who’s taken an interest in the case. Diop, a documentarian herself, has spoken in interviews of her desire to capture her own experience attending Kabou’s real-life murder trial (a hearing in which, as with the fictional one in this film, cameras were not allowed). So she strives to come close, framing Saint Omer around Rama’s firsthand experience, imposing layers of successive lenses which trouble Rama’s and our attempts to read Coly with too much clarity. With Rama’s character serving as a shared surrogate for both us as viewers and Diop herself in the act of observing, the potential for misinterpretation in the case by those watching calls attention to itself. Though nominally a disinterested party, Rama’s pregnancy, gender identity, and background all link her position on some deep level to Coly’s own, with their implicit connection being something the film never makes so bold a claim as to resolve.

For her part, Malanda as a screen presence has no trouble holding Diop’s, Rama’s, or this viewer’s attention. As Laurence Coly, she’s poised but barely slumping, mournful yet earnest, and both defiant and reserved, refusing ultimately to claim forms of knowledge she doesn’t have. At the same time, she’s in the position of advocating for herself — and may well be withholding a good deal in her attempts to do so.

While this is the sort of film for which repeat viewings would surely reveal successive layers in both Coly and her observers, it’s tempting to take her at her word when she tells the prosecutor late in the film, caught up in apparent contradictions arising from multiple testimonies, that, “if I lied, I couldn’t know why.” Reflecting a faltering grasp on the events of her case, Coly cites what the prosecution calls “hallucinatory” episodes and forms of sorcery that seem to hark back in ways that are just beyond her to her own Senegalese heritage — to experiences which somehow precede her.

At this and other moments, it’s not only Coly’s guilt but her identity and even personhood which are on trial. Her education, intellect, and manners frame her as a kind of rational actor she seems sure herself that she couldn’t actually be (to the courtroom, this makes her implicitly seem more “French”). At other moments, her claim to have “Western values” comes under question, as does her claim to French identity. So, too, do her motives for becoming involved with an older white partner who supported her through school, eventually becoming the secret but certain father of her late child.

With Rama as observer, the tenuous, constantly contested nature of Coly’s identity in a French context is drawn out further through their contrasts. As an educated woman (albeit with greater success) of a similar background, with a child on the way whose future Coly’s case can at moments almost seem to haunt, Rama’s investment in the proceedings can seem at once beyond easy description and — on more intuitive levels — easy to understand. Elucidating the finely tiered divisions which delineate the possible for those navigating white-dominated European society from a position in some inevitable way outside it or at least on its margins, Rama’s and Coly’s positions and even physicalities seem to rhyme with one another, with each erecting their own varieties of defense against the culture and circumstances which surround them.

While Diop’s direction of Saint Omer exhibits a variety of restraint that — true to the relationship between its real-life analogs — in some way mirrors Malanda’s firm performance, it also demonstrates a certain modesty in doing so. Refusing to make the sorts of claims she couldn’t back about her one investment or utilization of Coly (or, implicitly, Kabou) as a subject, Diop allows the film to contend from start to finish with its own compromises and ambiguities, allowing for humane treatment of a subject to whom few would devote such attention, deference, or time. In doing this, Diop — without mounting a defense of Coly exactly — accounts for those mysteries which persist in spite of our attempts toward self-knowledge, and which easy narratives disallow. Arousing in us a wary sort of trust, it’s tempting even for a skeptic to believe Coly when she argues: “When I speak of sorcery, I’m not lying.”

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