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Saint Omer—a troubling court case puts more than the killer on trial

Saint Omer can never explain what leads a mother to kill her child—but it can probe the circumstances in which such horror can happen, says Blythe Taylor
Issue 2840
Guslagie Malanda as Laurence Coly stands in the dock, in a scene from the film Saint Omer

Guslagie Malanda as Laurence Coly stands in the dock, in Saint Omer, a film based on the real case of Fabienne Kabou

Saint Omer begins with the sound of waves, and a woman’s breath as she walks towards the shore. Interrupting this scene is Rama, a university lecturer and writer who is awoken by her husband. He tells Rama she has been calling out for her mum.

Rama travels to a town called Saint Omer, where she is covering the case of Laurence Coly, a young Senegalese woman on trial for the murder of her child.

Laurence’s story is based on the true story of Fabienne Kabou, a French Senegalese woman. She went on trial in 2016 for infanticide after leaving her young child on the shore of a beach during the night.

The director of Saint Omer is documentary filmmaker Alice Diop. Although a fictionalised account of Fabienne Kabou, Diop much like Rama’s character, was present during her trial in 2016.

The power in Saint Omer is in its delivery. The hidden social relations that penetrate our daily lives—colonialism, sexism and their ruinous expressions—are explored through the most tragic of personal stories.

Yet there are no big on-screen outbursts of drama as we’re used to in courtroom stories. Instead, Laurence’s tragedy is quietly woven into the film through a subdued tone and pace.

Laurence’s story starts with a happy childhood before moving to France where she struggles with living with various family members. Eventually she meets an older white man, who became the father of her child. Through court testimony we learn her experience of that relationship is of being isolated and manipulated. 

At the start of her trial Laurence says she hopes the court ­proceedings will help her to understand why she killed her child. She blames her behaviour on “sorcery”.  

The story is very much about Rama too. She observes Laurence’s accounts from the court’s public gallery. She shares a cultural identity with Laurence, but also her alienation.

The proceedings play out with an assumption of the superiority of Western morals and intellectualism. A former tutor of Laurence questions why she would want to study European philosophers.

All of this makes Saint Omer more than a simple crime drama—its ­significance is far deeper. In the formality of the courtroom, the classic binary of good and evil is obscured. Yet justice is beyond its remit.

  • Saint Omer is in cinemas from Friday 3 February


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