Directed by narrative-feature debutant Alice Diop, the French drama film “Saint Omer” is disturbing, moving, and greatly provocative all at the same time. Based on a real court trial that the director closely followed in 2016, the plot here centers around a professor named Rama, who goes to observe the trial of a woman accused of having killed her own child. Rama’s intention is to look at this woman’s case as a retelling of the Greek mythological figure Medea and write a book on the same. Despite being largely restricted inside the courtroom and heavily dependent on dialogue, “Saint Omer” is extremely thrilling intellectually and is definitely a recommended watch.
‘Saint Omer’ Plot Summary: What Is The Film About?
“Saint Omer” begins with scenes of a young woman walking on a beach with her baby cozily bundled in her arms—an incident that is to become the focus of the narrative within some time.
The attention shifts to another young woman, the protagonist Rama, as she seems to cry out for her mother in her sleep. Her partner, Adrian, wakes Rama up and tries to comfort her, but the woman is not sure about whatever nightmare she has had. The next morning, we are introduced to Rama’s profession—a lecturer of art at a college in Paris. She masterfully conducts a lecture on the French novelist Marguerite Duras’ “Hiroshima mon amour,” deftly linking it to footage of women having their heads shaved after the war had ended. Rama is then seen with her family—two sisters and her mother, and it is evident that the woman does not have the best of relations with them, especially the mother. One of her sisters asks Rama if she can accompany their mother to a health checkup, but Rama states that she will be busy and does not get into any details about it.
The real reason for Rama’s getting away from Paris is seen soon after, as the woman packs up a suitcase and goes to the Saint Omer commune in order to attend a specific court trial. A young woman named Laurence Coly, the same one seen in the opening scene of the film, has been accused of having killed her fifteen-month-old baby by abandoning her on the beach. Over the next few days, Rama follows the case for a very personal reason, as she wants to write her upcoming book on how Laurence’s unusual story can be looked at as a retelling of the Greek mythological story of Medea.
How Do Laurence And Her Partner, Luc, Defend Their Individual Selves?
The film uncovers the case through conversations between the judge, lawyers, and Laurence as the court trial proceeds. Laurence Coly admits that she had traveled to the Berck-sur-Mer commune along with her baby Lili, whom she had then left behind on the beach to drown and die. However, Laurence also claims that she was not responsible for such actions of hers and pleads innocence in the case. A background on Laurence Coly is provided, as the Senegalese woman had come to France in order to study and was still a student at present. After initially staying with a cousin and an aunt, Laurence met Luc Dumontet, a man at least thirty years older than her. After starting a romantic relationship with Dumontet, Laurence moved in with him, and the man agreed to support her education. Despite not wanting to become parents, Laurence got pregnant with Dumontet’s baby, and Lili was born.
However, things had already deteriorated between the couple by this time. In fact, Laurence says that a number of matters about Dumontet had been affecting her, the most important being that Luc Dumontet already had a wife and daughter before settling with Laurence. Although Luc was estranged from his wife and was not staying with her, the two would regularly meet as friends, and Laurence was never made a part of this. Rather, Dumontet had never told anybody about his new partner, Laurence, and it was almost like she was hidden away only inside his house. Similarly, after Lili was born, neither Luc nor Laurence told anyone in the world about their baby. Defending against claims that Dumontet was essentially ashamed of his relationship with Laurence, the man says that he did not reveal her existence in his life because he believed doing so would be against what Laurence wanted.
Altogether, the situation was such that both Laurence and Luc Dumontet agreed that they themselves were to blame for the incident that had happened, but they also did not shy away from revealing their differences in court. Laurence also disliked the fact that Luc would very often visit his brother, who had been suffering from a terminal illness. It is evident that she felt her partner to be caring and concerned about the whole world and his family members, except for her, whom he treated almost like a burden. On the other side, though, there was also the factor that the woman could have been simply using the man’s wealth to pay for her living in France. Although the opposing lawyer poses this possibility in a rather crude manner, the thought that this could have been the case is not too unnatural either.
Why Had Laurence Coly Committed The Crime?
Although Laurence states that she was not responsible for her acts and even blames the supernatural and dark spirits at one point, she was surely the one who the law would find guilty. There is no conclusive answer provided in “Saint Omer” about why the woman killed her own daughter, and there can be no straight answer to it either. Instead, there were a number of factors that played into Coly acting the way she did, and some of them can also be simply theoretical. The woman’s childhood played a crucial part in all this, as she had seen her parents separate at a young age. Although Laurence was raised by her mother and grandmother, her father did keep in touch and also encouraged her to make a good career. Laurence’s mother was also very stern, to the point of being forceful about her pursuit of higher education, which resulted in Laurence having no friends at all, even as a child.
This solitary existence grew in scale further after Laurence moved to France. She admits that she would feel stuck and claustrophobic in the situation she was living in, with her parents wanting to project their own unfulfilled desires onto her. It was for this reason that she moved to France and started higher education in law. But Laurence gradually had a change of heart and wanted to pursue philosophy, which her father did not approve of, and the two kept no contact with each other from then on. Her relationship with her mother was not good either; the mother had always been a working woman, and she always wanted her daughter to be extremely driven towards a career and money. Laurence started to feel pressured and overburdened by the demands of her parents, and the relationship between them deteriorated over time. Having moved to a new country was even tougher; despite being a good and promising student in Senegal, Laurence was seen as just another immigrant struggling to make her place in France. There are suggestions that the woman faced racial discrimination, or at least tension, as well, although it is not directly brought into the conversation.
Laurence had seemingly yearned for a partner who would love and support her, but what she found in Luc Dumontet was very different. The older man was either very conscious of maintaining his own image and not being associated with a younger Senegalese woman or was too callous to take note of what he was inadvertently doing. Either way, Laurence was terribly lonely in her life and was seemingly subject to the confusion and struggles one would face in such conditions. The woman tells the court that she had been suffering from severe depression for almost a year before Lili was born, even finding it difficult to start her day in the morning. By this time, her educational plans were also in shambles, and there was nothing in her life that Laurence could look forward to. After Lili was born, she played the role of a responsible mother but was now completely out of social interaction. Laurence never left the apartment with Lili, not only to hide the existence of her daughter but also simply because she did not feel like doing so.
In essence, there is a strong suggestion that Laurence believed she would only make things more difficult for her Black daughter by raising her in France, where it was not the ideal life to be the daughter of a Senegalese immigrant. She had plans of sending the baby over to her mother in Dakar, and she even told Dumontet that she had done so after Lili was missing. However, Laurence’s relationship with her mother was not really such that she could give her the responsibility of raising her granddaughter. In fact, the mother had no idea that Laurence now had a baby, and she had only come to know of this after the tragic incident had taken place. Laurence had no chance of raising Lili by herself, and she felt that depending on Dumontet would be worse, especially for the baby. After all, Lili’s father never wanted to introduce her to the world. With all of these matters clouding her mind, it was not too unusual that Laurence lost her rational thought and mental stability at times. Driven by all of these possible reasons, she left her baby on the beach to die, believing that the sea would take her away and her body would never be found.
What Is The Myth Of Medea? How Does It Become Relevant?
Medea is a figure from Greek mythology upon whom Euripides based his tragedy around 431 BCE. In the mythical story, or at least as interpreted by Euripides, Medea was outraged by her husband Jason’s unfaithfulness, as he had left her and their two sons in order to remarry. Driven out of a very strong desire to exact revenge, Medea killed her two sons, which she had with Jason, only to take away his satisfaction of having sons. While the film, or the character of Rama in the film, attempts to draw a comparison between Medea and Laurence Coly, there are differences between the two women as well as similarities. The story of Medea itself can be looked at in a number of ways, as the woman seemingly forced herself away from her maternal instincts only to bring out her vengeful side. However, Laurence did not act out of any such vengefulness, or at least that is not portrayed in the film. Her decision instead came more out of a helpless feeling that she could not become a good mother. This feeling was, in turn, developed due to a number of social factors that pushed Laurence to one corner of society, making her an unwelcome outsider. In a way, Laurence perhaps genuinely believed that she was doing her daughter a favor by not becoming her mother, but the maternal instinct or desire was not entirely missing in her either. Before Lili had been born, Dumontet had proposed getting the baby dropped, but Laurence had been extremely protective of the baby in her womb, claiming that it was hers and she did not want to kill it. Even after Lili’s birth, Laurence claimed the baby to be completely hers, dismissing any claims from Dumontet’s side.
Just like Medea, Laurence Coly is a heavily flawed woman, but “Saint Omer” and the many adaptations of the story of Medea try to raise the question of whether such women, who had committed the heinous act of killing their own children, could be held completely responsible for their actions. This idea is driven home by a final speech by the prosecuting lawyer at the end of “Saint Omer,” who compares Laurence to a monster but then redefines what she wants to mean by a monster. The lawyer presents the fact that during pregnancy, the DNA of the baby inside the mother’s womb also transfers over to the body of the mother, making the mother essentially a monster made out of a culmination of different parts and DNAs. In essence, Laurence had killed her daughter in her flawed belief that she was doing Lili a favor by removing her from this unfair world. In doing so, Laurence was also very convolutedly acting as a protector to her daughter, scared from the extreme loneliness that she already found herself in and that awaited Lili as well.
‘Saint Omer’ Ending Explained: Why Did Rama Return To Paris?
Interestingly, the professor, Rama, is unable to stay over the entire period that the court trial takes place and instead has to return to Paris before the verdict is passed. As Rama keeps hearing about Laurence and her words and gives little thought to them, she starts to feel a strange similarity with the woman. Rama herself was also the daughter of an immigrant family, as her mother had come over from her native African country and then developed some mental struggles due to the same inability to fit in completely. Rama had been subjected to the effects of these struggles, and the professor, too, at present, is rather distant from her mother. Laurence had said that she used to call up her mother and talk to her on a regular basis simply because children are supposed to call up their mothers, and there was no emotional connection in this act. Similarly, Rama also drops in at her mother’s house only because she has to, and the feeling of distance and indifference that had been associated with Rama’s relationship with her mother still remains intact. To make things even more eerily similar, Rama has been pregnant with her own child for four months now, and it does not seem like she has told many people about it either. Like Laurence, Rama’s partner is also Caucasian, and there is a feeling that she, too, believes that her husband does not understand her deepest concerns. Gripped over by a horrible fear that she too might just turn up like Laurence and also deeply moved by the revelations in the court, Rama is unable to stay on at Saint-Omer and ultimately decides to return to Paris on the advice of her partner Adrian.
Is The Film Based On True Events?
“Saint Omer” is heavily based on true events, with only the name of the woman in focus changed. Fabienne Kabou, a Senegalese immigrant living in France, had been found to have killed her fifteen-month-old daughter by abandoning her on the beach at Berck-sur-Mer. The court trial for this case had taken place at the commune of Saint Omer, and the director of the film, Alice Diop, had obsessively followed the matter by visiting the trials. Diop also happens to be the child of Senegalese immigrants, and this was all the more reason for her interest in Kabou. In the court trial held against Fabienne Kabou, the deciding factor was also whether to consider the woman mentally deranged, as she stated that she would often have hallucinations and visions, much like Laurence Coly does in “Saint Omer.” While the film does not mention any final verdict in the case, Fabienne Kabou was ultimately found guilty of murder and was sentenced to 20 years of imprisonment in 2016.