Alice Diop’s Saint Omer and its Lexicons of Shadows / Fania Noël

Guslagie Malanda playing Laurence Coly. Still from the film. Courtesy of Les Films du losange.

On January 14th, Alice Diop was presenting her most recent film at the NYC Film Forum and the Africa Center. Critics and international festivals have praised Alice Diop’s first feature film for its cinematography, narrative, and acting. After earning the Lion of the Future and the Golden Lion at Venice, Saint Omer won the César of best first film at the 48th César ceremony on Friday, February 24. Saint Omer displayed a lexicon of shadowiness mastering the art of fragments—a cinematographic embodiment of Saidiya Hartman’s ‘critical fabulation’ methodology coined in her essay “Venus in Two Acts.”1 Although Saint Omer cannot be reduced to an “inspired by real-life” film, the film offers an acute awareness of Black subjectivities, silence, and its shadows.

Most of the film takes place in the courtroom where Laurence Coly, played by the amazing Guslagie Malanda, is on trial for the murder of her daughter Lilli. Laurence Coly does not deny that she intentionally left Lilli on the beach; nevertheless, she pleads not guilty. Rama (Kayije Kagame), the other main character, a Black woman professor and writer following the trial, serves as mediator for the audience. The audience’s introduction to the courtroom begins with the judge stating the facts of the case: Laurence Coly a Senegalese woman is accused of killing her 15-month-old daughter, born from a secret inter-racial relationship with a married old white man, by leaving her on a northern of  France’ beach. This opening scene contains the first of a long path of pebbles that Alice Diop leaves throughout the film for the spectator: “they first think about a migrant.” ‘A migrant’ is not a body but the shadow of part of an administrative category, a mere political annoyance, a flesh in what Hortense Spillers describes as “the zero degree of social conceptualization that does not escape concealment under the brush of discourse, or the reflexes of iconography. […] a primary narrative, then we mean its seared, divided, ripped-apartness, riveted to the ship’s hole, fallen, or ‘escaped’ overboard”.2

I stayed with this sentence during the scene, recognizing Christina Sharpe’s observations in The Wake about the necessity of “theorizing the multiple meanings of that abjection through inhabitation, that is, through living them in and as consciousness”.3 “I wished the sea would carry her away,” Laurence Coly told the judge, standing in a position “of deep hurt and of deep knowledge.”4 The sea left Lilli on the beach, where her Blackness suspended her status as a judicial subject; she remained in the ship’s hold until it was clear if she was a migrant or not because “the hold is the slave ship hold; is the hold of the so-called migrant ship; is the prison; is the womb that produces blackness.”5

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Going back to Valladolid

At the heart of this trial is whiteness in the French sense of civilization. More than simply making sense of the infanticide, the prosecution is invested in comprehending how Laurence’s assimilation and civilizational mobility failed.

In a variation of Valladolid debate, the prosecution’s approach does not raise questions on the  failure or shortcomings  of the assimilationist and acculturation model but instead identifies fault in the disease that Laurence carries in her. This approach manifests in the judge’s deep bewilderment and the prosecutor’s suspicion of Laurence Coly’s rationale: sorcery. Laurence Coly–a non-French citizen born and raised in Senegal, whose parents did everything by the book that France forced upon Black French people–went exclusively to French school, was forbidden to speak Wolof, cultivated a reverence for French and western literature and philosophy, going so far as to enroll in a philosophy program in France and to begin a relationship with a white French man.

Kayije Kagame playing Rama. Still from the film. Courtesy of Les Films du losange.

The adherence of Laurence’s mother (played by Salimata Kamate), Odile, to sorcery is not questioned since she is the principal figure of the other, so she is allowed to believe what she believes. But Laurence is not her mother and almost not her mother’s daughter; her articulate French, her critical thinking belong to France. The courtroom is trying to reconstruct a sense of what happened to this promising woman. Laurence Coly’s path had been one that many before her followed: studying, becoming a French citizen, and inevitably experiencing anti-Blackness and misogynoir. However, she was able to mobilize her identity as an erudite immigrant from the Senegalese intelligentsia to distance herself from the masses of Black people, the ungrateful Black French nationals with poor parents, and poor immigrants. With her impeccable French, so articulate, she could have secured a position, as others had, as minister, presidential spokesperson, or editor with numerous book deals; in short, she could have perfectly embodied these poster child roles in the reimagining of France as the land of enlightenment ideology. But every time an element seems to provide the final answer, is she insane or a sociopathic liar? At the same time, we understand that Laurence Coly’s words make sense as we recall Aimé Cesaire, in Discourse on Colonialism, argued that “colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism”.6

And yet, Laurence Coly is holding onto sorcery as a defense strategy after committing a crime considered so monstrous, that it is the only type of crime for which women receive harsher sentences than men.7

We remember Fanon when Laurence speaks of her will to protect her baby from the devil, and the only devil she knew was the one from her own culture. And Laurence Coly, the promising Black woman who should have chosen, according to her white woman philosophy professor, a theme closer to her culture than the Austro-British philosopher of language Ludwig Wittgenstein, cannot see devils built upon centuries of domination, forced with “new ways of seeing, and in particular, a pejorative judgment with respect to his original forms of existing.”8

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Lost your mother(s)

During her 1993 Nobel lecture, Toni Morrison said “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”9 Laurence Coly’s life is measured by her ability to master language, particularly by her mother, when she says to Rama, not without pride: “all the press is talking about her impeccable French.” In this statement from Odile lies a truth about Rama’s presence in this courtroom, as the other Black woman. She, a French-Senegalese professor and author, fighting her own internal battle, of being so close of Laurence, as she, too, speaks impeccable French, she, too who amasses symbolic capital, she too, who has closed herself off while navigating a silent relationship with her mother, and she, too, who will soon be a mother.

Listening to Laurence Coly describe her childhood, we are offered a glimpse of Marie NDiaye’s (who co-wrote Saint Omer with Diop) Trois Femmes Puissantes10, in which the character Kadhy, mirrors Laurence Coly aspiration for loneliness: “petite fille, elle avait apprécié sa propre compagnie et que, lorsqu’elle souffrait d’isolement, ce n’était jamais seule avec elle-même mais au milieu d’autres enfants ou dans les nombreuses familles chez lesquelles elle avait travaillé comme domestique” (264). (As a little girl, she had enjoyed her own company and that when she suffered from isolation, it was never alone with herself but among other children or in the many families in which she had worked as a servant.)

In the shadows, a silent dance between mother and daughter plays out between Rama, Laurence and their respective mothers. A quartet of Captive Maternal, defined by Joy James as “most vulnerable to violence, war, poverty, police, and captivity; those whose very existence enables the possessive empire that claims and dispossesses them.”11

Rama is grappling with the vertigo of her likeness/contrast with Laurence and the intimate understanding of her position. This understanding is mediated by western conceptions of pain and madness, which refuse to acknowledge the unseen and untold that Rama reads as a sign of Laurence’s possible madness. The Black mother-daughter relationship is a central theme explored by Black women scholars, writers and artists producing across the Black Atlantic. This is a relationship frequently defined by the enduring violence of misogynoir and a deep self-awareness as Patricia Hills-Collins explained in Black Feminist Thought:

Unlike White women, symbolized by “good looks” and “waist-long hair,” Black women have been denied male protection. Under such conditions Black mothers aim to teach their daughters skills that will “take them anywhere.” […] For far too many Black mothers, the demands of providing for children in intersecting oppressions are sometimes so demanding that they have neither the time nor the patience for affection. And yet most Black daughters love and admire their mothers and are convinced that their mothers truly love them.”12

Maybe the label ‘love’ attributed to Laurence-Odile’s relationship can easily be challenged by the reading offered by bell hooks in All About Love, which defines love as a “mix of various ingredients-care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust, as well as honest and open communication.”13 We can’t dismiss the different forms of care happening in the silence. On the other hand, Rama’s mother, like Olmene’s mother in the novel Bain de Lune by Haitian author Yanick Lahens, believes “that not everything should be revealed. Especially not to men. ‘Even if he offers to shelter you and care for your children.’ Silence is the safest companion. The only one that would never betray you.”14

Saint Omer has little to no interest in providing answers, the audience does not learn the verdict at the end of the movie, and can find no definite answer in Laurence’s tears. We were invited to hold, and witness the crafting and weaving of real life into stories. The film concludes as it unfolded: in silence and whispers, with Rama visibly pregnant, holding the hand of her drowsy mother, an embodiment  of Mississippi author Anne Moody narration in her 1968 autobiography Coming of age in Mississippi:

I stood there looking at her. I didn’t want to wake her up. I wanted to enjoy and preserve that calm, peaceful look on her face, I wanted to think she would always be that happy […] I felt and knew the things I knew about Mama. They couldn’t remember when she and Daddy separated. They had never heard her cry at night as I had or worked and helped as I had done when we were starving.15

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  1. Hartman, Saidiya. “Venus in two acts.” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 12.2 (2008): 1-14.
  2. Spillers, Hortense J. “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book.” Diacritics 17.2 (1987): 67.
  3. Sharpe, Christina. In the wake: On blackness and being. Duke University Press, 2016: 33.
  4. Sharpe, In the wake, 27.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Césaire, Aimé. “Discourse on colonialism.” Postcolonlsm. Routledge, 2023: 335.
  7. Chetcuti-Osorovitz, Natacha. Femmes en prison et violences de genre. Résistances à perpétuité. Dispute (La), 2021.
  8. Fanon, Frantz. Toward the African revolution: Political essays. Grove Press, 1988: 38.
  9. Morrison, Toni. Noble Lecture. December 7, 1993. www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1993/morrison/lecture/.
  10. NDiaye, Marie. Trois femmes puissantes. Gallimard, 2009.
  11. James, Joy. “The womb of Western theory: Trauma, time theft, and the captive maternal.” Carceral Notebooks 12.1 (2016): 255.
  12. Collins, Patricia Hill. Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge, 2002: 186.
  13. hooks, bell. All about love: New visions. Harper Perennial, 2001: 5.
  14. Lahens, Yanick. Bain de lune. Sabine Wespieser éditeur, 2014: 53.
  15. Moody, Ann. Coming of Age in Mississippi. Dell, 1968: 57.