Arts, Movies

‘Saint Omer’ Touches on Motherhood’s Complicated Nature


A mother’s intuition typically tells her to protect her kids at all costs, but sometimes different psychological factors play into mothers doing just the opposite. 

Medea is a Greek mythology figure who is known for just that—she kills her two sons after their father leaves her for another woman. In the film Saint Omer, Laurence Coly (Gusalgie Malanda), is on trial for infanticide at the Saint-Omer Criminal Court. Her story mirrors Medea’s story of loss and perseverance. 

Saint Omer, nominated for Best International Feature Film at the 95th Academy Awards, follows novelist Rama (Kayije Kagame) as she attends Laurence’s trial to write her book Medea Castaway about a modern-day Medea. 

Director Alice Diop does not set out to answer whether Laurence was justified in killing her baby. Rather, she depicts what makes a young, intelligent mother turn into an isolated, almost phantom mother who was never seen taking care of her child.  

The French film is inspired by Fabienne Kabou’s real-life court case for the same crime. Diop, who attended Kabou’s trial and has a background in documentary filmmaking, weaves documentary-esque footage into Saint Omer, indulging the viewers to imagine being in the courtroom as if they were one of the jurors listening to Laurence’s story.

Starting off as a courtroom drama, Saint Omer transforms itself into a heartbreaking tale of womanhood, drawing any mother or daughter to experience Laurence’s emotional journey. The movie beautifully explores how much moral responsibility a woman should take as a mother and a daughter, yet the viewers may be overwhelmed by the excessive length of the trial filmed.  

Despite what many societies believe, not every woman wants to become a mother, as shown in Rama’s reactions to the court case. The movie intertwines Laurence’s testimony with Rama’s inner thoughts. Hearing Laurence recount her story of how she felt before and after giving birth alarms Rama about how a mother can be overwhelmed by having a baby. Rama is intimidated and even threatened by the drastic personality changes that a woman may undergo in motherhood, as demonstrated by the reappearing, fast sounds of a heartbeat in the background of the film. 

Examples of mothers offering some form of justification for killing their children exist in fiction, such as when Sethe from Beloved by Toni Morrison, justified killing her baby to prevent her from the suffering of slavery. But Laurence lacks a justified reason for the murder of her children. 

The viewer stares directly into Laurence’s lawyer Vaudenay’s (Aurélia Petit) eyes as if she is talking to every single audience member while making her defense. Vaudenay’s questions and powerful statements tear down the calm facade of Laurence, unveiling Laurence’s intrinsic maternity, and touches on the complicated notion of motherhood. 

Vaudenay interprets Laurence’s crime in both mystical and scientific terms, utilizing sorcery as a defense strategy. Vaudenay has Laurence plead insanity while defending the inevitable mental crisis a mother like Laurence could run into. 

Sorcery seems like the least possible defense strategy an attorney would use, but the closing defense from Laurence’s side proves to be an eloquent and affecting speech. 

Laurence’s testimony, in addition to Vaudenay’s closing remark, is heart wrenching and suffocating to listen to. She narrates her burdens in an emotional yet unflinching tone before the verdict. The viewer hears Laurence recount herself struggling to find a place that she belongs. She mentions her inexplicable family tension, the oppression of women in the patriarchal society, and society’s low tolerance for women making mistakes in motherhood. These topics make Laurence’s story more relatable and humanizes her. 

February 12, 2023