Saint Omer

Saint Omer
Alice Diop, 2022, 122’

Rama, a young author, attends the trial of Laurence Coly at the assize court in Saint-Omer. The latter is accused of killing her 15-month-old daughter by leaving her on a beach in northern France during the rising tide. The woman's almost impervious act evokes all kinds of ghosts from Rama's own past – questions about origins and upbringing, and whether she herself was loved and wanted by her mother. Laurence pleads guilty, but claims witchcraft caused her child's death. In the course of the trial, the words of the accused and the statements of the witnesses shake Rama's beliefs and call into question the viewer's judgment.


“The film foregrounds a Black woman’s perspective—still an anomalous occurrence on screen—but what Rama finds in Laurence amounts, inevitably, to a trick mirror. Despite all the conditions that unite them—their Senegalese heritage; their older, white, French partners; their tense relationships with emotionally remote mothers from whom they have inherited their own ambivalent maternity—Laurence remains as opaque to Rama as she does to everyone else. As she relays her far-from-straightforward version of events, Laurence admits that she cannot explain why she killed her daughter. “If I’m lying, I can’t know why,” she says. Rama, observing from the gallery, could not hope to divine her veracity based on their common biographies. A climactic moment seals the distance between them: Laurence meets Rama’s sheepish gaze and cracks an unsettling smile, as if they have just exchanged an unspoken joke. The gesture sends Rama flying out of the courtroom in tears, just as her mother’s words had done all those years earlier. The likeness between the two women yields no hallowed meanings; Laurence remains inscrutable, perhaps even to herself.”

Kelli Weston1


“AD: Documentary and fiction contaminate one another. Take for example, sound. When I was working on Saint Omer, I had a lot of conversations with the sound designer – who was amazing, but who wanted to clean up the sound. I'd decided to shoot in the real court of Saint-Omer, which is a place with enormous windows that wasn't soundproof. We had some long takes that went up to 20 minutes, and occasionally during that time you'd hear the children playing in the school playground, which was just next door. There was one occasion when the sound engineer wanted to stop the take because we could hear the background noise and I said to him, "Well exactly, that's what I want, that's why I shot here – so that we can hear that background noise, so that real life can enter into the film." For me it was almost anathema to be so afraid of direct sound. We were there for that school, for those children, for the life which continues to thrive just outside of that suffocating space of the courtroom. Here, the documentary sound contaminates the fiction, and that expands the film's intentions. And in documentary, on the other hand, fictionalisation of the sound often allows me to go much further than the real.

CD: I think that sound engineers, like cinematographers, often want a kind of perfection. But often when you are shooting in natural settings, as you and I often do, then the sound accidents are something that become part of the film and the experience of making it. So all of a sudden, when I'm told we're going to clean up the soundtrack, I say, "But wait! Be careful!" It's not possible to clean up something that happened in the scene, precisely because it was part of the scene.”

Catherine Wheatley2

  • 1Kelli Weston, “Look and See”, Film Comment, 17 January 2023.
  • 2Catherine Wheatley, "Alice Diop in Conversation with Claire Denis", Sight and Sound, Vol. 33, No. 2, March 2023.


“De Saint-Omer à Saint Omer, il y a des traits d’union qui manquent et dont le manque fait trou. Le manque qui fait trouée, autrement dit la déliaison du trait d’union absent, par exemple entre une mère et son enfant comme entre elle et le reste de la société, fait appel d’air aussi. L’air qui manque quand la noyade est inévitable, et que travaillent à restaurer les respirations chantées de Caroline Shaw qui scandent tout le film en marquant un peu trop la circulation des affects d’identification entre Laurence Coly et Rama, la romancière venue à son procès parce qu’elle a été comme Alice Diop interpelée, intimement appelée par le destin de la femme qui lui ressemble comme une sœur.

De Saint-Omer à Saint Omer : la Sainte-mère, le sinthome qui n’évoque plus plus le saint-homme comme chez Jacques Lacan mais la Vierge, la mère à l’enfant de la tradition chrétienne. Déjà on se dit que Laurence Coly, transposition fictionnelle de Fabienne Kabou, a longtemps caché sa grossesse à son compagnon, comme un simulacre d’immaculée conception. Et puis l’on pense à Lacan parlant du « sinthome » dont il avait trouvé le terme chez James Joyce, ce jeu de mots qui fait trait d’union entre une ancienne graphie du mot de symptôme et l’admiration de l’écrivain irlandais pour saint Thomas d’Aquin, le saint homme qui peut s’écrire aussi ainsi, autre jeu de mot : « Saint Thom ». Cette femme noire qui a simulé la sainte Mère est une Médée de notre temps. Et Alice Diop y insiste, trop sans doute, comme si cela n’allait pas de soi alors qu’en ce domaine-là, celui des maternités, il va de soi que cela ne va pas de soi. [...]

Laurence Coly est alors cette figure montrant aussi que la langue peut faire entendre autrement ce que l’on entend depuis Jacques Derrida par le monolinguisme de l’autre, qui n’est plus seulement l’imposition d’un idiome majoritaire aux groupes minoritaires, mais le retournement d’une langue que l’on entend autrement quand elle est parlée depuis le lieu de l’autre. S’il y a dans le geste cinématographique d’Alice Diop une dimension inclusive et réparatrice qui reste à discuter, il y a avec Saint Omer l’étonnement qu’une femme accusée du pire y parle si bien le français, et le parlant si bien qu’elle fait du bien à un cinéma français qui le parle si mal aujourd’hui.”

Des nouvelles du front cinématographique1


  • 1Des nouvelles du front cinématographique, “‘Saint Omer’ d’Alice Diop: Soutenir la langue et tenir à son irréparable”, Le Rayon Vert, 26 November 2022.
UPDATED ON 13.11.2023