This story includes spoilers for Saint Omer. Almost a decade ago, the world was gripped with anxiety as it watched the legal proceedings against a young Senegalese woman unfold in the public eye. Her name was Fabienne Kabou, and she was being tried for infanticide after leaving her toddler to drown on a beach in the French seaside town of Berck-sur-Mer in 2013. Documentarian Alice Diop followed the case closely from beginning to end, and what resulted from her research was Saint Omer, a legal drama probing darker complexities of motherhood and the wounds passed down from generation to generation.
The details of Saint Omer run almost parallel to those of the Kabou proceedings. Like Kabou, Diop’s main character is a Senegalese immigrant and defendant in an infanticide case. Her name is Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), and while her drive and ambition brought her to Paris, she soon discovered that her dreams were too far out of reach for her. In her testimony, Laurence shares that despite her high intellect and her singular vision to build a new life far away from home, she wasn’t able to hack it, and she had a hard time adjusting to her new surroundings. Things only got worse when she began a covert affair with a much-older married white man and got pregnant with his child. Motherhood was a struggle for Laurence, and one day, she snapped: she left her 15-month-old on a sandy beach at high tide, and the child’s lifeless body was found days later.
The point of the criminal case that follows isn’t to establish whether Laurence is guilty but to understand the motivations behind her violent, unthinkable act; the prosecution asserts that she is evil and acted in full knowledge of her actions, and the defense argues that Laurence’s claims of being influenced by hallucinations and voices are obvious signs of severe mental instability. Hoping to write a novel based on the morbid details of the case, writer Rama (Kayije Kagame) makes it a point to be front and center in the courtroom. But with each new layer of Laurence’s testimony, the more unsettled Rama becomes. Laurence’s story feels personal because it’s so akin to her own; from their shared ethnic background to their similarly fraught relationships with their mothers, the two women’s experiences are eerily alike, shaking Rama to her core. Even more frightening is that she is in the early stages of her first pregnancy, anxiously looking forward to the next chapter of her life as a mother. With so many parallels between the two of them, what makes Rama so different from Laurence? Is it possible that she too could descend into a despair deep enough to kill her own baby?
With Saint Omer, Diop attempts to contextualize the gravity of the mental and emotional turmoil she personally experienced while observing Kabou’s case in 2016. With every tortuous scene in the Saint-Omer courtroom, the filmmaker forces her audience to endure the same distress she felt learning more about Kabou’s story. Diop’s framing of Kabou through the character of Laurence isn’t really about right or wrong — infanticide is always a hideous crime — but why. What could cause a mother to fall into such a state that would lead to her so casually putting her precious child in harm’s way?
The answer? Trauma. More specifically, the intergenerational trauma that is passed between mother and daughter.
“The whole film is about the exploration of Laurence’s experience and allows us to look into ourselves and at our own incomprehensibility in relation to the concept of motherhood,” Diop told audiences at a recent screening of Saint Omer at the Lincoln Film Center in New York City. “Saint Omer is something that came out of something very deep that took me into some very dark corners. It was brought out of a desire to explore something very dark about myself but also some universal truth.”
“It’s been risky doing this press run for the past month because it’s bringing up a lot of things constantly,” she admitted candidly. “You cannot lie, and you have to deal with these feelings that the film is bringing up time and time again. It’s also very therapeutic in this way.”
In both Laurence and Rama’s lives (and, presumably, Diop’s), trauma informs so much of their everyday decisions. As Black people and Africans living in postcolonial France, they are inherent “others” in society and are made aware of it at every turn through the country’s rampant systemic inequality and various interpersonal microaggressions. (In one especially cringeworthy moment, a philosophy professor from Laurence’s university takes the stand to testify against her, sharing her confusion why a young African woman would be so interested in the teachings of an Austrian philosopher when they have nothing to do with her.) At the same time, much of the pain that shapes these women’s experiences has been at the hands of their mothers, women whose once soft places had been replaced by a hardness that they subject their daughters to.
We’re only given glimpses into Saint Omer’s mother-daughter dynamics, but even those brief moments tell a deeper story. On the stand, Laurence’s roundabout testimony reveals a strained connection with her mom Odile (Salimata Kamate), a traditional and strong-minded woman who unintentionally aided in her daughter’s mental breakdown by persistently pressuring her to greatness. (Notably and predictably, Odile never explicitly takes accountability for her role in Laurence’s emotional decline, choosing to place the blame on “curses” from back home.) In flashbacks, we also learn that Rama’s mother was cold to her as a child, and as a result, the younger woman can’t even stand to be in her presence for too long. One of the most important relationships in their lives is a fraught one, and the devastating impact drives the characters to unthinkable extremes.
This tension is one that so many daughters can connect personally to, and it’s fueling an important cultural discourse right now; recent films like Umma and Everything Everywhere All At Once use fantasy as a vehicle to explore the deep consequences of that unease between the daughters of mothers. The strain that occurs between mothers and their daughters can be very complex and difficult to explain, and depending on the vantage point, you might understand it differently. On the one hand, there are mothers trying (and often failing) to communicate their desire to set their daughters on a different, better road from their own. And on the other, daughters resent the rigid rules and expectations that their moms project onto them without taking their own hopes and dreams into account. Add in the generational and cultural gaps that come with being born in both a different time and country, and you have what can turn out to be a recipe for disaster. Both sides are informed by their own unique experiences — good and bad — and use those contexts to guide how they move about the world, often hurting each other in the process.
Sitting in the Lincoln Film Center watching Saint Omer, I was tense for all two hours of the film. Despite having a great relationship with my own Nigerian mom, I was surprised by how triggered I felt at certain points of the film. As a first-generation immigrant, I could relate to the stress of trying to follow the rules and norms set by my parents and my culture while also clinging to my own ideas and values of my own life. I know what it feels like to disappoint my mom. I know what it feels like to be disappointed by my mom, too. Even though she hasn’t told me her full story, I know there’s a reason for it all, and it probably stems from the way that she was raised (and that of her mother before her).
Fabienne Kabou was found guilty for infanticide and sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2016. We don’t learn of Laurence’s fate, but one could guess that it mirrored that of the woman who inspired her character. Rama’s story has a much happier ending; in Saint Omer’s final scene, we see the novelist tenderly holding hands with her mother and cradling her growing baby bump. Though she and Laurence’s journeys may have had similar traumas, Rama is choosing a new path — a choice that will have an impact for generations to come.
In a poetic and perfectly succinct way, the closing argument of Laurence’s defense attorney sums up this complicated dynamic. She makes reference to the chimera, a mythical monster composed of parts taken from other creatures, and ties it back to the ways in which mothers and their daughters are inextricably connected. “We are all chimeras,” says the lawyer. “We carry the genetic and emotional traces of our mothers and our daughters — as will our daughters after us.”
Saint Omer is now playing in select theaters.