Identifications and Their Refusal: On Alice Diop’s “Saint Omer”
By Francey RussellMarch 2, 2023
Gorgeous and gutting, Saint Omer (2022) is French documentarian Alice Diop’s first narrative film. Her documentary work, in films like Towards Tenderness (2016) and We (2020), tends to be concerned with the varied ways in which ordinary people, especially Black people, make sense of and live with love, gender, belonging, race, work, power, and parents. In Towards Tenderness, Diop listens to four young men from the Paris banlieues talk about love: one man wonders how much it matters that he never saw his parents express love for each other; another talks about the difference between just having sex with your guy friends and being gay. In We, a woman on the RER commuter train reminds Diop of her mother, and then the film cuts to footage from a Christmas of her youth, and Diop muses in voiceover, “I search for my mother. I’m sorry she appears only fleetingly. She’s always a silhouette on the edge of the frame, ready to disappear.”
Saint Omer continues this intimate, memorial project, despite the sensational murder at its heart. The film’s title names the town in northern France where, in 2016, a 39-year-old French Senegalese woman named Fabienne Kabou was tried for drowning her 15-month-old daughter Adélaïde in the English Channel. Kabou admitted to killing the child but denied moral responsibility. Having studied law and then philosophy focusing on Wittgenstein, she insisted that the only possible explanation for what she did was “witchcraft”: “Nothing makes sense in this story. What interest could I have in tormenting myself, lying, killing my daughter? I spoke of sorcery, and I’m not joking. Even a stupid person would not do what I did.”
Diop attended the trial. She describes herself as obsessed with Kabou’s “mystery” and the ways she was characterized in the press. Like Kabou, Diop is an intellectual, ambitious Senegalese woman. At the time of Kabou’s trial, Diop was also in her late thirties, and pregnant with her first child. Much of the dialogue from Saint Omer is taken word for word from the transcript of the trial. The film was shot not only in the same region and town, but also in the very same courtroom.
Yet Diop decided not to make a documentary about Kabou. She has said in interviews that this story could “only” be told as fiction. To take a line from her protagonist, Rama, Diop uses “the power of narrative to sublimate reality,” to transform violence and shame into “an almost lyrical song.” Even as its details are directly lifted from the world, for Diop, this reality could never be straightforwardly represented, but needed to be rerouted and mediated through the alchemical powers of narrative film.
Saint Omer is the story of one, or two, or four, or more women: that of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), the Kabou-like figure on trial for murder, as well as the story of Rama (Kayije Kagame), the Diop stand-in who has come to witness. It is also the story of Laurence’s mother, Odile (Salimata Kamate); of Rama’s mother, Seynabou (Adama Diallo Tamba, with Seyna Kane in flashbacks); of Laurence’s daughter Elise; and of Rama’s child, still growing inside of her.
There are also the women of the court, all white: the judge, the defense attorney, members of the jury, members of the audience. Throughout the film, Diop’s camera rarely moves, and it almost always looks directly into an individual human face. This filmic strategy cumulatively generates an effect of doubling, tripling, and transposition: each person is alone, and yet implicated and overlaid with all others.
Rama is a professor and a writer, born of Senegalese parents and raised in France. Early on, we see her lecturing to a hall of mostly women (or, at least, they get the close-ups) about Marguerite Duras’s Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and the ways that literature and film can provide a kind of “grace” where, before, there was only horror. Rama visits her family for dinner, visibly tense, silent at the table, while her white husband makes friendly small talk. Rama tells her sister that she cannot help with their mother, who is also silent. They watch some home movies, which someone offscreen describes as “happy times.” Rama, still silent, places her hand around her own neck. Then she packs a bag, rides a train, and arrives alone in Saint-Omer. It is not yet clear why she’s come.
Most of the film takes place inside a brightly lit, wood-paneled courtroom, often shot straight on so that the space fills the frame. The court becomes a theater, complete with careful blocking, elaborate costuming, rehearsed speeches, and a clear division between the players and the riveted audience. After the judge enters, the defendant is brought in, hands cuffed behind her back, wearing an ocher shirt that blends her with the walls around her. “Do you know why you killed your daughter?” the judge asks. “I don’t know,” Laurence says, her first line in the film. “I hope this trial will give me the answer.”
Laurence says “I don’t know” many times throughout the trial. It is not always clear if she really doesn’t understand herself, or if she knows that she could not make herself understood to these particular inquirers in this particular place. We learn early in the film that the only explanation she can offer is that she was under a curse, yet she offers this account without conviction, as if there were simply no better explanation (“Nothing makes sense in this story”). In response, the court only seeks to understand Laurence in its own terms, so that it can issue an appropriate sentence. Given that the primary task is to determine whether Laurence is either culpable and guilty or else insane, the familiar discourses of moral responsibility and psychiatry take center stage.
Speaking as a witness, Laurence’s mother also invokes curses. As she does, she says that she can hear everyone in the room “smiling”: “Before you Westerners, I can’t explain it.” The defense attorney argues that the very ideas of sorcery and curses are proof of Laurence’s exculpating madness, while the prosecutor argues that these are proofs of Laurence’s incriminating manipulativeness. An expert witness later suggests the need for an appropriate “ethnological” understanding of the Senegalese cultural context in order to understand this talk of spirits and the evil eye.
Confined to a small wooden box, Laurence watches these exercises in explanation largely impassively, except for when her interest in philosophy is subject to scrutiny. She explains that she wanted to be a “great thinker,” and that this ambition was crushed when she moved to France. When the judge asks why she chose to study Wittgenstein, the aphoristic, occasionally impenetrable philosopher of language who sought to “dissolve” the traditional problems of philosophy, Laurence repeats, yet again, “I don’t know.”
Her philosophy professor is called to the witness stand and counters that it is “rather odd, an African woman interested in an Austrian philosopher from the early 20th century. Why not choose someone closer to her own culture?” Laurence sits down hard into her chair, visibly enraged for the first and only time in the film. Seated behind the professor, Rama watches these white women debate what interests Laurence is allowed to pursue and claim as her own, and rages with her. In the context of this trial, what is the “oddness” of Laurence’s interest in Wittgenstein supposed to prove: her madness or her competence?
Throughout this rally of speculation, this frenzy to understand, Rama sits with her pen and paper, a writer for whom language and fiction are tools for sublimating the “things we can’t be clear about,” as Laurence puts it. Rama is here to do research on a book tentatively titled Medea Castaway. (When her editor suggests that the title might be too vague, Rama asks, “But doesn’t everyone know the story of Medea?”) Rama, we can surmise, will use language and myth not to explain away Laurence’s mystery but to give it appropriate form, perhaps bring grace to shame. As the Medea reference suggests, Rama places Laurence in a more expansive lineage. Medea is not only the story everyone knows of a vengeful woman who kills her children; in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1969 masterpiece adaptation especially, which Saint Omer cites directly, it is also a story of the devastating and sexualized violence of the colonial encounter. As one character—a wry centaur—observes, for Medea it is a “spiritual catastrophe.” In one scene, Medea paces the new unknown land, frantic in her realization that the world itself has lost its once orienting significance. She cries out, truly alone: “Are you losing your way perhaps never to return again? […] Earth, where is your meaning? Where can I find you again?”
Diop has her own filmic language for handling all that we can’t be clear about: her camera; her script, with its silences and ellipses; her breathy, beating score; her play with light; her magnetic performers.
In the French legal system, the judge can directly question the defendant, and this judge is very curious about Laurence. She asks about her upbringing in Senegal, her relationships with her mother and father, her early instruction in French rather than Wolof and the way this alienated her from others, her studies in law and then philosophy, her romance with an older white man, and her concealed pregnancy and brief parenthood.
While the judicial system is ostensibly in the business of establishing the nature of the crime, who committed it, and how they should be punished, the modern court seeks something more about the accused, or rather, seeks something more from the accused. It is no longer enough that the accused admit to the act. Rather, the accused must be able to answer the question, “Who are you?” As Michel Foucault said in his 1978 lecture, “The Dangerous Individual”: “Beyond admission, there must be confession, self-examination, explanation of oneself, revelation of what one is. The penal machine can no longer function simply with a law, a violation and a responsible party. It needs something else, a supplementary material.”
This “supplementary material” is the person’s character, the “secret of his own being.” The court needs this material to tie the deed to the person in a way that makes him not only causally responsible but also morally and legally responsible. For the latter kind of link—for real guilt—the act must be integrated into the global behavior of the subject, where “[t]he more clearly visible this integration, the more clearly punishable the subject.” By contrast, to claim that the accused is insane is to claim that there can be no such narrative integration of the deed because there is no such narratively integrated psychological subject. Or rather, the deed must be integrated into a disintegrated history of madness. In either case, the deed must be plotted in the person.
But Foucault frames his essay by considering cases where the accused remains silent about who he is, failing to confess his secret self. Here, he observes, “the machinery jams, the gears seize up.” Foucault is interested in this new practice of self-disclosure so central to modern conceptions of responsibility and legal practice, namely in how these conceptions and practices are thrown out of joint when the accused resists these games. In Saint Omer, Laurence speaks, but she won’t be made sense of in the way the court demands. There is the act, which she doesn’t deny, and there is the woman in front of us, and the gap between them remains.
Hence the verbose strategies of the prosecutor and the defense attorney: the prosecutor seeks to prove that Laurence was manipulative, jealous, and bent on revenge, that she acted from these psychologically recognizable and integrated motives and so is criminally guilty, deserving of a prison sentence. Meanwhile, the defense attorney seeks to prove that Laurence was and is simply mad, hallucinating voices and curses, and so that she did not really act at all, and so is criminally insane, deserving of medical care. Both strategies work to fill a gap that the film suggests may not in fact be available, not here, not ever. The present of this film is thick with the past and other places and other people. The apparently singular violence at issue is heavy with other violences, intimate and world-historical, exactly the kind that Laurence cannot simply cite when the court demands to know, “Who are you?”
To preserve the authority and resistance of not knowing or not telling, perhaps to respect what the Martinican philosopher Édouard Glissant calls “the right to opacity” in his 1990 book Poetics of Relation, Saint Omer does not show the court’s verdict or offer a final explanation. Telling Kabou/Laurence’s story not as fact but as fiction is another way to respect this right.
Saint Omer is Laurence’s story, but it’s Rama’s too. Rama is writing a book, which is her official reason to come to Saint-Omer. But as the film and the trial progress, Rama stops taking notes as her eyes grow wide and despondent; she holds her throat; she has lunch with the defendant’s mother, and remembers her own—silent, always; she cries often, weeping on the floor of her hotel room. Scenes in the present are cut with Rama’s memories, VHS tapes of family gatherings, clips from other works of cinema, and glances out the courtroom window to a sky of rolling clouds.
Late at night, Rama watches the moonlit murder scene from Pasolini’s film. Medea’s moon chimes with Laurence’s account of the night she killed her child, and the close-ups of Maria Callas’s face include her with the women in the film we are currently watching, plotting this film in cinema history. Relays of memory, need, imagination, and identification cross inside and outside the film like live wires.
In his review, Anthony Lane suggests that the film doesn’t need Rama: “[O]ne could argue that Laurence’s story is so dramatically strong that it doesn’t require such backup. It’s as though Diop didn’t entirely trust us to read the narrative as we should.” Lane misreads Rama as inessential to the film, a character who functions like an exegetical voice-over or an overwrought score, an extraneous prop providing us with orientation, instruction. This misses the fully relational, transferential nature of this film, composed as it is of projections and identifications and their refusal, relays of colossal needs and the fantasies constructed to name and meet them. Everywhere, the film suggests that there is no way to look directly and only at Laurence, for any person’s vision of Laurence will be shot through with her own history, her fantasies, her trauma, her hopes.
The film’s title also orients us in a certain way toward Laurence. Saint-Omer is the name of the town where the original trial took place, a small, mostly white town not far from Calais, the site of refugee and migrant encampments that drew international attention the same year as the trial. (In 2015, more people sought asylum in Europe than at any time since World War II.) But of course, the title’s invocation of saints also places Laurence in a certain beatific, otherworldly light, and her opacity encourages this. Opaque figures can frustrate, but they also seem to promise salvation, as though their serene blankness could finally make room for and relieve us of our own painfully incomprehensible fullness. The very opacity that the trial seeks to dissolve, the very explanatory gap that the state seeks to fill, provides occasion for Rama and every other character in the film, and in the audience, to play out their own interiorities. Diop is masterful in her handling of the transference, to use a psychoanalytic turn of phrase.
The last witness we hear from is an “investigating judge” who had interviewed Laurence after she was arrested, where the prospect of sorcery had first been raised. The investigator said he wanted to ascertain whether a “cultural aspect” played a role, whether Laurence’s “Africanness” could help explain her. He said he told Laurence not to be ashamed of her culture, since it could help them understand her, to which she replied, “I am a Cartesian thinker; I don’t believe in all that.” The prosecutor accuses the investigator of planting the idea in Laurence’s mind, feeding her a story that she could use to get off the murder charge; the investigator denies it, saying he stuck with the rules of criminal procedure.
As these French men debate the relevance and reality of sorcery and the authenticity of Laurence’s invocation of it, Rama shifts around, as though in pain. The camera rests to the side of Laurence’s face, as she watches these men analyze her “cultural aspect.” The sound volume goes way down; the men’s voices fade; the breathy, rhythmic music rises. Laurence locks eyes with Rama—and smiles.
Something breaks here, in the film and in Rama: the film now moves swiftly to its close as Rama, in a panic, begins to plan her escape back to life. Even though the meaning of Laurence’s smile is hardly transparent (recalling the Mona Lisa poster hanging in Rama’s mother’s apartment), it upsets the blank opacity that had facilitated Rama’s transferential obsessions. There is an actual human being here, not a surface or a fantasy of savior or monster or sister. Thanks to Malanda’s performance, with its immense and intensely contained physicality, Laurence is never less than a fully realized presence, her own private person. But until she returns Rama’s gaze, Rama had been allowed to imagine that she—Rama—was not a presence for her—Laurence. Until Laurence looked back, Rama had perhaps not realized that she herself had been a figure of Laurence’s imagination, that Laurence might have been telling her own story about this other Black woman in the audience taking notes. Given that Laurence looks almost directly into the camera, the same convulsion is effected for those of us watching in the dark.
In the final shot of the courtroom, it is empty, as is the box where Laurence had been confined. We have heard the defense attorney’s closing remarks, arguing that Laurence is insane, appealing to the jury for compassion. While Diop does not dismiss the institution of psychiatry, she refuses to ratify its authority or give it the final say. The film does not, in fact, provide any final say. Laurence is gone; we don’t know where. Rama goes home, where she visits her mother, silent on the couch, and Rama holds her hand, silent too.
Francey Russell is an assistant professor of philosophy at Barnard College and Columbia University. She works primarily on topics in moral psychology, history of philosophy, and aesthetics.
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