on Saint Omer
a film about mothers, amongst many things
(tw infanticide, physical abuse;
also spoilers for the film)
I can’t stop thinking about the film Saint Omer, directed by the astounding Alice Diop. I watched it last week with my friend Angela at the good old Laemmle Theatre in North Hollywood, and left the film feeling very physically shaken. I can’t remember the last time I needed to take a beat, needed to just absorb, for a moment alone, what I had experienced on a screen… but I walked out of the theatre completely silent, completely dumbstruck by the wave of emotion I was feeling.
Saint Omer is an extraordinarily still film about something so vilified, mothers killing children, and yet it remains a story carved diligently, eloquently, moment-by-moment, by Diop’s skill to layer the film with mainly long one-shots of dialogue. It could have been a risk, but there’s a dream-like resolution that stuns us as we watch the trial of Laurence Coly (played astutely by Guslagie Malanda), staged in an almost languid Shakespearean-like soliloquy, as we, along with her, the mother who has killed her 15-month-year-old baby, try to understand her motives.
The movie gasps at you, slowly, like a wave, like the mouth of the ocean where Coly puts her baby hoping that the child will be swept up under the moon, giving the young mother the freedom she so desperately seeks. I think of why mothers kill their children a lot, it’s a question I have been hungry to know since I was a child, confronted with an explicable violent mother who told me regularly she would and wanted to hurt me. After two attempts at my life, as well as my sister’s, it wasn’t beyond comprehension that she could kill us, at a certain point I wondered if it was less about if and more about when.
But in an abstract dimension, I try to understand that my mother is just a woman. A woman who was not given care or comfort and her only reprieve was a husband who couldn’t love her. Coly, too, feels unthought of by the man she desires the attention of, and so much of the film is her trying to contain her rage toward him as she feels he has betrayed her, not chosen her. That sting is penetrating, you can feel it like a tectonic shift throughout the room as they speak to each other but never directly.
Yet, as the case evolves each day, less and less makes sense. Coly is no ordinary woman, she is beautiful and proud. Not a smile on her face creaks across her face, except once, but we’ll get to that later. She speaks like a philosopher, so she speaks in riddles. And even though she is eloquent at times, she forgets her own lies and is caught, often, in a web of confusion. Is it a masquerade or a highly orchestrated plan by a severely intelligent woman? A woman who reads Wittgenstein and speaks an alluring intellectual French. “Because of the colonization by the French in Africa, the French they speak is not everyday French,” Malanda tells The Los Angeles Times. “It’s closer to literature, in a way.”
Coly’s parents valued education, and you can see how that has penetrated every aspect of how she envisions the world around her, and how she sees and experiences herself. Maybe she feels robbed of the opportunity to be somebody, someone like Kierkegaard, the Danish existentialist; a man who had the space afforded to ponder and be taken seriously. Coly, too, was a woman who longed for refinement, who longed to be something more, she longed to be known, for her mind and thoughts to be listened to. So many white men throughout history have been afforded a microphone to speak, but what if you too have the urge to say what you want about the world around you, about your observations, what then? Must you be silenced for an eternity if you are not white or a man? Or can you take control and look toward your own camera?
So, are her actions toward her child an orchestration of a larger philosophical debate — of fairness, sanctity, and the rights of women and mothers or was she merely a depraved woman wanting to leave a mark, even if it was just the sight of her own desperation? So then, can we judge her? I found myself thinking that the entirety of the film. Sometimes, no matter what, you can’t just succumb to what society demands of you. Maybe sometimes you retaliate, and maybe, sometimes, that hurts all those around you. These are the moments while watching the film where I clearly understood my own mother.
Angela afterward declared that she was rooting for Coly, a Black woman up against the white French institution, to win — but I just found myself feeling severe angst about the state of Coly’s life and what had brought her to this current impasse. I mourned what she could have been, what she had the ability to become if things hadn’t turned out as they had. Maybe if she were white her life would have been different, better, easier. Sometimes that’s an intense and almost too consistent grief.
Because, it’s clear, at a certain point, it got too hard for Coly. Her love left her wanting, and her jealous urges, she admitted, caused disruption in her life. Life is not easy for many, and what happens when you long for more but are incapable of manifesting it into motion? You stay stuck in the muck, the humiliation penetrating you until you decide to take matters into your own hands. But what drives someone to the pit of desperation? We see Coly cry but never fully. Only shadows of lurches, quivering pangs of silent sadness as she stands on trial for her baby’s murder. She knows how it looks, she knows it warrants no sympathy, yet she still pleads not guilty.
Throughout the story, what is so clear, is that we are run by our own narratives of ourselves. Coly is so wrapped in her performance of herself that she forgets that one always has agency to change course. What could have happened if she had asked for help? I kept thinking that. I kept thinking about what would have happened to her tiny, sweet baby… if only she had told someone about what was going on. That she wasn’t doing well. That she was scared. That she felt hysterical. I mourn what happens to children in those moments of lapses of character in adults.
Even still, a lot of me related to Coly. When I was in my twenties I went from one person to the next hoping to be saved. I didn’t want to do the work myself, and I hoped someone would give me the life I wanted — a life of comfort and care and beautiful things. I would steal it if I had to, and sometimes I did. I lied and I stole from people I knew and demanded that I get the life that I thought I deserved. Why wouldn’t I? When trauma surfaces, family units become broken — so who do you lean on when your father and mother don’t respect their responsibilities to parenting? Who do you turn to when you have no one?
She moved from one person to the next, and to whoever would let her in. I think about the person I was before therapy before I knew what life force was, before I knew my life was my own and thus I was accountable for it. Before I knew that no one owed me anything. Before I knew it was better that way.
Many people who have never done therapy don’t have to question why they think the way they do about the world and the people around them. If no one asks you to challenge your traumatic read on your entire life, why would you stop questioning other people’s motives? If you feel like a victim why would you question otherwise? And, why would you begin to feel safe if you never have? Coly didn’t believe in the power of love because she had never felt it. This was an issue of love, of care — and not receiving it. This is a story of a woman not being loved in the way she needed and that rejection turning into an act of deep moral harm. At a certain point, she describes herself as a person who prefers Cartesian logic — I think therefore I am. But what of intuition? I feel therefore I live. I feel therefore I value my life. I value my life and therefore I am accountable to and for my actions.
The film is based on true events — Diop was at the trial of Fabienne Kabou, in 2015, who had admitted to killing her 15-month-old daughter, Adélaïde. For one week, Diop watched the events, drawn by Kabou’s presence; both women were of Senegalese descent mothering a mixed-race child with a white man, there were eerie parallels. Then, as the trial proceeded, Diop told The New York Times, she began to believe there was a “nearly mythological dimension” to the tragedy. There was a connection, a spark of recognition, of seeing the complex questions that motherhood spurs. At the time, like the character who resembles her, Rama, a literature professor and novelist, Diop was actually pregnant during the trial. So all the questions of motherhood were deeply personally cataclysmic, forcing her to look at how she was also mothered, and perhaps why she had experienced such a dislocation from her own mother, making the healing and story layered. It’s perhaps one of the most profound films I’ve ever watched for that reason alone. That the story is so interconnected between Diop’s depiction, her own life, and the life and fate of Fabienne Kabou… so to witness and hold the totality of that experience is deeply painful and very moving.
“Everything that happened as far as the trial is concerned is practically a verbatim transcript of the trial,” Diop explained to The Los Angeles Times. “In fact, during Kabou’s trial, which resulted in a 20-year prison sentence, many remarked on her unique quality of speech and unusual cadence. Diop wanted to preserve that in the film, which resulted in 20-minute, one-shot takes of Malanda embodying Kabou’s actual testimony. Malanda says Diop encouraged her to speak as if she was reading Marguerite Duras.” But, as Diop points out, which is so evident in the film, the intellectualization of Coly/Kabou’s actions, her poetic exploitation of the tragedy of events usurps fact: that she, a mother, murdered her own baby.
In Eichmann in Jerusalem Hannah Arendt speaks of the banality of evil to describe the actions of Alfred Eichmann who she (in a more profound way) explains was clearly just a racist/anti-Semitic idiot taking orders … and the sad and wild reality is sometimes the most atrocious acts of inhumanity (i.e the Holocaust or slavery or the genocide of the New Americas for the construction of the new world) are always intiated by acts of everyday, almost ordinary evil. There is this same banality in the actions of Coly/Kabou because it doesn’t feel like an act of passion, but more a slow-built reaction towards an acute feeling of rejection. What amounts is a quiet but ravenous fire, resulting in a final act that is so despicable, and yet so simple. She merely leaves her baby by the oceanside…
So what happens if the party in question refuses to show truly vulnerable remorse? What if one part of her forever has to be mysterious to her own actions, how do you hold someone accountable then?
I’m trying to bring justice to myself from someone who very much wants to be mysterious to her own actions. I understand why. I understand how painful it must be to face that part of herself and how painful it will be to see her own ugliness. But I know, if she would, she would find grief instead of hatred, she would find all the pain that she’s been trying to dislocate from and that is maybe the hardest part of it all. That my mother would much rather live in a construction of who she is, then who she really is, and face what she’s really done.
In a momentary lapse of character, Coly faces Rama (Diop’s cinematic stand-in) for a few seconds, and then slowly smiles. I am still chilled by the memory of the stare; a slight grimace that glacially turns into a shallow but menacing smile. It’s so direct that Rama begins to cry, which to me is the only worthy response.
It’s as if Coly/Kabou is suddenly Rama/Alice’s own mother and the monstrosity she so feared in her is suddenly, momentarily, visible to only her and nobody else. It was such a deeply private and yet terrifying moment to watch that I felt myself replaying it before going to bed many nights after, on a fearful loop. The powerful moment when two women, the only two Black women (besides Coly’s mother), in a courtroom, facing each other like two mirrors that don’t sync but there’s some sort of symmetry that keeps them locked into each other’s gaze; there’s power and destruction in that; there’s the entire universe. Maybe Rama cries because of the grief of seeing Coly, finally, aghast.
She’s suddenly there, the performance to the side, fully lucid and knowing what she’s done. So she smiles at the woman who could be her mirror, a sliding door to the past or a future, another option. The smile is a small but betraying fact, a reality that hurts too much to bear — what led Coly to that moment? In the beach or the courtroom? Maybe Rama cries because she understands nobody will ever know why someone chooses sin. I replay Coly’s smile and think of my own mother, my own bloody Valentine.
In the closing argument by Coly’s lawyer, she speaks of the phenomena of chimera cells, as in how mothers and children are inextricably linked because of shared cells. In an article entitled “A Pregnancy Souvenir: Cells That Are Not Your Own,” The New York Times, reported, “There is also an evolutionary conflict of interest between mothers and their young. A mother’s reproductive success depends on the total number of children she raises to adulthood over the course of her life. Devoting too many resources to a single child may leave her too frail to care for later children. If a child can somehow coax its mother to provide more resources, on the other hand, he or she may be more likely to survive to adulthood and reproduce.” Coly’s lawyer, a haughty pixie-haired white woman, declares, in an emotional tale, that mother is never fully divorced from child. That said mother always carries their child, dead or alive, forever, merely because of the cells shared.
I am emotional again, as I was in the film, completely awed by the delivery of the inexplicable and remarkable human truth of the connection between mother and child. Maybe that’s why it’s so painful to not have it, to be so lost without it in the world and to make myself a somebody without it. I can’t express to most people how it feels to be a victim of your own mother’s violence. There’s nothing as self betraying then a mother who wants to actively hurt or betray you. Your human mind cannot explain it and the only way to accept it is to understand your own worthlessness.
Nobody thinks of the baby until Luc Dumontet, Coly’s partner, an older weak white man, brings up Lili, their dead child. We see Coly flinch at the loss, and we know it must hurt, on so many multiple dimensions. I guess this is the right time to disclose that Coly pleads not guilty because she blames sorcery for her actions. Which, to me personally, doesn’t feel impossible. Until the smile. Or maybe that is the act of sorcery, maybe Coly is already gone, taken over only by an entity that wants to feed off her. Ancestors work in mysterious ways, so do ancestral patterns. They work through us and work through us for generations until those of us with enough wherewithal do the work to completely deny them any passage to us. We heal.
My mother, too, speaks of the jinn that haunts her. Sorcery is alive and real across cultures in the world but that’s the most undeniable part of the events. Mothers kill children, we know this. In the great story of Medea, the play by Euripides, the titular character is often depicted as a priestess of the goddess Hecate, and a sorceress that kills her children. There are many interpretations of why — was it protection or jealousy? I know my theories about my own mother, but some days I still question myself. On an alternative read, is there more compassion to be found here? I don’t know, but thousands of years of human civilization has still not brought us these grave answers to our human condition. We are still wandering/wondering into the moonlight, trying to interpret our own actions. We may never know why Coly/ Kabou took her daughter’s life. Like Medea, was she punishing her husband; or, also like Medea, was she protecting her daughter from a life of lovelessness? Or is an act of total hatred, masterminded by her jealous aunts? I don’t think so… I think having a monstrous mother has taught me a lot about humans.
The wildest part is she still laughs. She still feels. I know there are moments I have seen her heart break under the concurrent pressures of the world. It’s important for me to remember that as I continue with my life, forever out of breath for the longing I feel for a different kind of life, and a different kind of mother. But when it hurts I remember her humanity. I remember her desires and her dreams and her wants… and I remember her disappointment. I remember she tried as hard as she thought she could. And I remember I can forgive her. I remember that I get the mighty choice to live differently.
... thank you Fariha. <3