Saint Omer: The Chimera of Motherhood

France’s 2022 submission to the Oscars for Best International Film Saint Omer is an emotional delve into the relationships between mothers and daughters masquerading as a courtroom drama.

Kayije Kagame plays Rama an academic who travels from Paris to Saint-Omer to observe a court case with the intention of writing a new book on it. A few days before the trip she, her partner, and her two sisters have a get together at Rama’s mother’s house. In this scene director Alice Diop starts hinting at the theme for the film. It’s apparent that Rama has a more tepid relationship with her mother than her siblings do.

The trial Rama attends for research is of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanga) a woman from Senegal who drowned her 15-month-old infant daughter in the sea. The first day of court plays out in seemingly real time as the judge (Valérie Dréville) reads the details of Coly’s case and inquests her background to try and find meaning to the infanticide. This plays on for an extended period which introduces the uneasiness that punctuates the rest of the film.

After the first day of the trial, Laurence’s mother Odile (Salimata Kamate) introduces herself to Rama, their shared Senegalese background creates an instant bond between them. They agree to meet for lunch on the following day. When they meet for lunch, Odile exposes what was previously hinted at, that Rama is pregnant. This connects Rama to Laurence in a more intimate way.

Saint Omer is deeply concerned with the relationship between mother and daughter. “We carry on the cells of our mother’s and our daughters who will in turn carry on us.” Laurence’s lawyer speaks the theme of the film as a closing statement to the trial. She refers to mothers and daughters as chimeras who share each other’s cells and are thus intimately connected.

What happens when a mother is maybe not physically abusive but emotionally distant? Rama’s mother appears to have been that, and Laurence makes the case that her mother was as well.  Rama’s trauma from her mother is hinted at through flashbacks but never spoken explicitly, but it influences her to this day, and she worries that she will become a version of her mother to her unborn child. Is Rama destined to repeat the sins of her mother, or worse the sins of this woman on trial in whom she sees herself? Diop is greatly interested in these relationships and the permanence of damage that is done.

Alice Diop transforms the traditional courtroom drama into something much more personal and introspective. The film uses the trial as a catalyst for Rama, an unconnected observer, to explore her inner demons and question what it means to be a mother and a daughter.

★★★★