In 2016, lauded documentarian Alice Diop attended the trial of Fabienne Kabou, a Senegalese woman who admitted to leaving her daughter to drown on a beach at Saint-Omer near the English Channel. Kabou claimed she was under the influence of sorcery.
Diop’s electrifying dramatisation of the case sticks to the facts but changes the names. Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda), like Kabou, was a promising student, who became increasingly isolated after she became pregnant by a much older white Parisian. The monologues are taken from Kabou’s testimony. When the judge asks the strangely composed young woman what happened to her 15-month-old baby, she responds: “I don’t know. I’m hoping this trial will give me an answer.”
For all the subsequent propositions and testimony, there is no answer. The unspeakable act at the heart of the trial remains just that.
Coly is closely observed by Diop surrogate Rama (Kayije Kagame), a pregnant academic and author, who has a complicated relationship with her own mother.
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Most of the drama unfolds in a wood-panelled courtroom, and some legal arguments are delivered straight to camera. As with the director, cinematographer Claire Mathon ensures that the viewer, like Rama, cannot look away. The script, written by Diop, her editor Amrita David and the Goncourt-winning novelist Marie NDiaye, is similarly unadorned.
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Despite the claustrophobic setting, Diop crafts an evocative modern retelling of Medea, with detailed notes on femininity, immigration and race. Motherhood, argues the defence barrister (Aurélia Petit), is a chimeric enterprise: “We carry within us the traces of our mothers and our daughters who in turn carry ours. It is a never-ending chain. In a way, us women, we are all monsters. We are all terribly human monsters.”