In documentarian Alice Diop’s feature debut Saint Omer , the notion of justice is murky, and the image of a Black woman is studied, deconstructed. Anahit Behrooz wrestles with the masterful film in a conversation with its maker.
There is a strange uncanniness to Alice Diop’s Saint Omer. So much of it feels, at first glance, familiar. There is the setting of the courtroom, wood-panelled and beguilingly unremarkable, lifted straight from The Good Wife, or Kramer vs Kramer, or any stock courtroom drama. There is the woman accused of murdering her baby daughter, Laurence Coly, whose abject madness recalls the wilful bloodbath of the Medea myth and our millennia-long anxieties about the figure of the unnatural mother. But sit with Saint Omer a few minutes, and it becomes clear that nothing quite like it has ever been achieved.
What veteran documentarian Alice Diop does with her first narrative feature is astonishing in its quiet retrieval of complex interiority from the articulation of a life narrative, both on screen and in the courtroom. Through the fictionalised testimonial of one woman, Diop stages an unnerving investigation into the tipping points of violence – both aftermaths and political conditions which precipitate them – told through the most restrained, unbloody of cinema grammars.
Inspired by the real-life story of Fabienne Cabou, a young Senegalese-French woman who drowned her child in the ocean and whose subsequent trial Diop attended, Saint Omer transforms Fabienne into Laurence and Diop herself into the cipher of Rama, a humanities professor at Sciences-Po who abandons her strained relationship with her mother to attend Laurence’s trial as research.
Saint Omer’s scope is enormous – the continued infection of the white colonial gaze on Black subjectivity, the invisibility of maternal struggles – but the language Diop employs is deliberately, almost frighteningly direct. There is something haunting in seeing such depths with such clarity, in floating in lucid waters as the ocean floor plummets beneath. I spoke to Diop about the legacy of the Medea figure, the entanglements of postcolonial identity, and art as a proposition for complexity.
Girls on Tops: This film is inspired by the court case of Fabienne Kabou, but it is also a retelling, or re-interrogation, of the Medea myth. What was it about these seemingly contradictory genres that you wanted to bring together?
Alice Diop: For me, the function of mythology allows catharsis. It's the function of ancient tragedy: by watching the life of an exceptional person unfold, it allows us to interrogate our own lives. And it was precisely what I wanted to do with this film. The story of this woman, this Black woman, can evoke something universal, something atemporal, that provokes a catharsis for the viewer. When I first heard of [Fabienne’s] story, I didn't hear, "A woman drowned her child in the sea." I heard, "A Black woman waited for her husband to be out of town to go to the sea at full moon and leave her child there." The very words she uses at the start of her confession are, "I placed her in the sea so that the sea might take her body away." Those words open up so many possibilities.
It struck me while listening to one of the courtroom speeches the slippage that exists in French between la mère as mother and la mer as the sea. Was that a deliberate thing you were playing with?
That is precisely the question of the film. Laurence says, "I placed my child in the sea," but what I heard is, "I offered her to a powerful mother." It's the same idea of the moon, and the power of the moon at high tide. There's a psychoanalytical dimension to this story that I intuitively seized at the start. And it was by starting at this psychoanalytical level that I could begin to construct this story.
For me, the principal subject of this film is this woman's account, and the manner in which she tells it. She speaks like a writer. She speaks in a way one could have heard from Marguerite Duras – Duras contaminates the entire project of the film, in a way. It is not for nothing that Marie NDiaye, one of the great French writers, co-wrote this film. There is something powerful in the act of narration that allows us to look beyond the horror of the story towards catharsis. It may be horrible, but without her account, without her narration, we can't look beyond.
Duras is mentioned at the very beginning and the Duras quote Rama makes in her lecture, about an abject subject in a state of grace, seems to structure the entire film. And then there is the lecturer in the courtroom who dismisses Laurence’s academic interest in Wittgenstein because he has “nothing to do” with her culture. There’s a really interesting grappling with the relationship between European intertext and Black subjectivity at play.
To be Black is to be contaminated by European subjectivity. I am a Black woman who grew up and lives in a French environment, in European culture. Even though I am Black and my parents are from Senegal, my cultural hybridity is shaped by Marguerite Duras, Marie NDiaye, Albert Camus, witchcraft.. .all of that is me.
So that postcolonial subjectivity is defined by this hybridity?
Of course, and that is why the primary theme for me in this film is the political. We have a Black woman at Sciences-Po who stands up in front of a room full of white students, behind her are archival photos of women with shaved heads, collaborators from the time of the Nazi occupation, and she quotes Hiroshima Mon Amour in this remarkable lecture co-written by Marie NDiaye. This Black woman, in that place, at that moment, speaking Duras' words, is for me the political statement of the film. I think it says so much. And then we have Laurence Coly, who invented the idea that she wrote a doctoral thesis on Wittgenstein. Even Lacan never succeeded in reading Wittgenstein – he is such a complicated writer! And this woman says she wrote a doctoral thesis on this incomprehensible philosopher, I found that magnificent. Even if she is lying, it is the fact that she tells this particular lie: what it says to me is that she wanted to resist the fantasy that is projected onto Black women.
There's also the speech that the defence makes at the end, where they talk about the maternal body as a chimaera and the cells that pass between mothers and children – hybridity seems to become both monstrous and collective.
What I find interesting there is that you are connecting the idea of monstrosity and hybridity and identity. I hadn’t thought of that before – I’ll have to reflect on it.
I just thought it was beautiful. The word monster often has such horrible connotations, but here it feels perhaps liberating, or at least universal.
I don’t know if this answers your question, but what it makes me think of is the loneliness of this woman. Fabienne Cabou, that is to say Laurence Coly in this film, is a woman who is killed by the refusal of people to see her in all her hybridity and all her complexity. And it is that finishes her, effectively. That was what really affected me: this woman who claimed to be a student of Wittgenstein in order to resist racism, to resist those who could not imagine such a person would be interested in Wittgenstein. She became a Black woman the moment she arrived in France, whereas in Senegal she was simply a brilliant student. But she arrives in France and is pulled into this hole of invisibility - it is that which produces the monster.
So it becomes about the way that people's gazes define you. Which makes the moment where her and Rama finally look at each other in the courtroom really interesting.
Rama is in effect a mirror for Laurence: she represents the opportunities that Laurence did not have. Rama gives a lecture on Marguerite Duras in one of the country’s most prestigious academic spaces – here it’s Sciences-Po, but it could have been the Sorbonne or whatever. The point is it's something that Laurence could not have done. But at the same time, it is because Rama has such a position that she can no longer engage with or understand her own mother. Ultimately, there isn't one single way of looking at the figure of the Black woman. I wanted this film to be a proposition to look at the complexity and intensity and singularity of Black women, both those like Rama and like Laurence, in a way that has been lacking across the history of cinema and literature.
I’m wondering if this is also why the Medea myth fits so well? Because Medea is a migrant herself – she is taken away from her home to Jason’s.
Yes, precisely. It's because she is effectively a foreigner, a migrant, an exile who kills her own children to pay back the person who stole her. Whereas in the case of Laurence Coly, it becomes a lot more complicated - her partner isn't like Jason, he's this pathetic guy. So it tells another story, in which this woman is not only a victim, but also a manipulator, also a liar… she has this complexity. This story's parallels with Medea were always what interested me, but I had originally projected onto it this idea of a foreigner who is made a victim to a white man. But the reality was far more complex than what I imagined. And ultimately, it isn’t just compassion or pity that I feel towards Laurence. She is such a powerful woman – powerful in her madness and her ugliness and her manipulation. She isn't just a victim: she is both a victim and guilty party. She becomes like the women we see at the start of the film, the collaborators shown during the Duras lecture.
And that is why the courtroom space fails her, I suppose. Because the justice system can only see her as a victim or a perpetrator.
Yes, exactly. And it is cinema which allows us to finally see her nuances.
Saint Omer is out now in UK cinemas.