Tropic Sprockets / Saint Omer

By Ian Brockway

Documentary filmmaker Alice Diop has crafted a stunning and enigmatic fictional story based on a real murder case entitled “Saint Omer.” The film is for the most part a courtroom drama but the behaviors are slippery and nothing is definitive or certain. [For showtimes, check]

Rama (Kayije Kagame) is a literature professor captivated by the infanticide case of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) a Senegalese mom accused of killing her daughter. Laurence testifies that she was very in love with Luc (Xavier Maly) an older man some forty years her senior. Laurence asserts that in a short time the romance went south. Luc was already married and Laurence was treated with belittling disrespect and made to feel invisible.

Luc takes the stand saying that he has always loved Laurence and is completely aghast at events. Luc further says that the pregnancy was a complete surprise and that he was uncertain as to who the father of the baby was but that he welcomed the baby regardless.

Luc closes his testimony saying that Laurence was hostile, mean and aggressive and that he just could not handle her.

Laurence reveals that she consulted clairvoyants. She has heard voices and sees the ghost of her deceased baby. None of these admissions directly address why Laurence drowned her daughter under the moonlight. We are left with a series of questions and what ifs.

Rama is riveted and hangs on the young mother’s every word. Rama herself is newly pregnant and plagued by her own fears and anguish. In tiny impressionistic flashbacks we learn that Rama’s own mother deeply resented her or very likely abandoned her.

Laurence’s motivations are not completely clear. One can say the same in regard to Luc who shouts “I don’t know!” when asked about his feelings regarding his baby daughter. Rama’s mother too is a mystery: she hovers like a ghost in home movies only to drift out of view.

Laurence is convinced she is cursed by an evil spirit. As a possible explanation for Laurence’s maternal visions and voices, the judge says that the cells and emotions of the baby forever reside in the mother and can travel back and forth in accordance with emotions. Because of this sharing of cells, mothers are chimeras, creatures able to shapeshift, or more to the point, mothers are “monsters,” creatures of the night.

This film is a 21st century interpretation of the Greek myth of Medea. It is also a semi-autobiographical account of Diop’s own obsession with the 2016 French court case of Fabienne Kabou convicted of killing her infant daughter on a moonlit night.

While the events and behaviors in “Saint Omer” are impossible to predict let alone comprehend, this film is rare and transfixing and you will be on edge throughout.

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