Laurence Coly, the Senegalese immigrant at the center of the French courtroom drama Saint Omer, is dressed to be unnoticed. For the first two days of her trial, at which she stands accused of murdering her 15-month-old daughter, she wears a brown knit blouse; on a later day, she wears a brown collared shirt. She doesn’t wear jewelry or any other adornments, and so, in scenes where she testifies, her attire and the matching wooden walls of the courtroom can seem to bleed into one another.
Yet despite her muted appearance, Laurence (played by Guslagie Malanda) is forcefully captivating—much like the film itself, which collected top prizes at the Venice Film Festival and is shortlisted for an Oscar in the international-feature category. Saint Omer tells a true-crime story in an unusually quiet way, relying on long, slow camera shots and heavy pauses to deliver its emotional punches. In this narrative-fiction debut, the director Alice Diop understands that a restrained image can be more haunting than a graphic one.
A documentarian, Diop is largely faithful to the facts of the real case that inspired the film. In 2016, she attended the trial of Fabienne Kabou, who admitted to leaving her daughter to drown on a beach near the town of Saint-Omer. The film focuses less on whether she committed this act and more on whether, because of her state of mind, she could reasonably be held accountable. Prior to the murder, Kabou, like the fictionalized Laurence, was a lapsed student, pregnant by a much older white man. Laurence’s monologues borrow directly from Kabou’s testimony, detailing the years she spent cloistered in her lover’s Paris studio and fearful of the outside world. The movie’s protagonist is a journalist and an author named Rama (played by Kayije Kagame), who is tasked with writing about the crime and its inscrutable culprit. As such, Rama is Diop’s—and the audience’s—closest analogue. The director nods to films such as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Medea and Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour, layering in clips from each. But a film that’s never mentioned is arguably the one whose legacy looms largest: La Noire de …, Ousmane Sembène’s hour-long masterwork, released in 1966.
Saint Omer and La Noire de … (its English title is Black Girl) share some obvious parallels. The latter similarly turns a violent real-life event into a taut elegy; both movies follow young Senegalese women who migrate to France and then become unmoored. Diop’s Laurence and Sembène’s Diouana each set out with energetic plans of self-invention but are instead faced with extreme, withering isolation (in the case of Diouana, as a mistreated maid living with her white employers). “I was in a black hole,” Laurence says on the stand, midway through Saint Omer, as a way of explaining her disintegrating state of mind at the time of her daughter’s birth. Halfway through La Noire de …, Diouana asks a rhetorical question that could act as a response: “Is France that black hole?”
Even in rooms with others, these migrant women are profoundly alone, and Saint Omer picks up on a vocabulary of alienation that Sembène brought to the screen nearly six decades earlier. Those scenes where Laurence seems almost to melt into the courtroom walls—a small figure overwhelmed, visually, by the imposing mahogany—mirror the way that Diouana sometimes gets tucked into the corners of her own environment. At one point, the large apartment windows loom over Diouana, offering a dark and taunting view of an unreachable France.
But these women’s fates differ in a crucial way. In a desperate bid to escape her circumstances, Diouana decides to take her own life. Laurence takes her child’s. When the full cruelty of that act becomes inescapable, Rama, from the courtroom gallery, looks over to where Laurence sits. The defendant turns slightly and looks back at her. That scene, where they hold each other’s gaze, is the film’s most horrifying. Rama’s face slowly crumples into an expression of grief and recognition as well as marked fear, while Laurence’s eyes stay steady, and her mouth curls into a small smirk.
In spending so much time trying to decipher this woman—her outline obscure against the background walls and the trial’s background noise—Rama, and the viewer, may have inadvertently forgotten the girl on the beach, the 15-month-old child who, in real life, was named Adélaïde. “I didn’t even think about her,” Rama says near the movie’s end, but that absence throws Saint Omer’s central question into sharper relief. According to reports, Adélaïde wore a dark-colored jumpsuit at the time of her disappearance; at night, from afar, she might have been indistinguishable from the rising tides. The next morning, the fishermen who found her at first thought she was a seal. When, Saint Omer seems to ask in its closing act, will we look closely enough to finally see the girl?