A mother on trial in 'Saint Omer' : Pop Culture Happy Hour The moving new drama Saint Omer tells the story of a young mother (Guslagie Malanda) brought to trial for the killing of her infant daughter. Meanwhile, another woman (Kayije Kagame) who has come to observe and write about the trial wrestles with her own feelings about impending motherhood. Directed by Alice Diop, the French film is shortlisted for an Oscar for best international feature.

A mother on trial in 'Saint Omer'

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A warning - this episode contains discussion of filicide.


HOLMES: The moving new drama "Saint Omer" tells the story of a young mother brought to trial for the killing of her infant daughter. As she sits on the witness stand describing the events leading up to the crime, she talks about her struggle as a mother and a daughter. Meanwhile, a woman who has come to observe and write about the trial wrestles with her own feelings about impending motherhood. The French film is shortlisted for an Academy Award for best international feature. I'm Linda Holmes, and today we're talking about "Saint Omer" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.


HOLMES: Joining me today is NPR senior editor Barrie Hardymon. Hi, Barrie.


HOLMES: And also with us is writer, comedian and co-host of the "Bad Romance" podcast, Jourdain Searles. Welcome back, Jourdain.


HOLMES: So "Saint Omer" is based on a real criminal trial that was attended by director Alice Diop, who previously worked as a documentarian. She created this feature based on both the trial and her own observation of it. In the film, young mother Laurence, played by Guslagie Malanda, testifies at length about the death of her infant daughter, whom she left on a beach to be taken by the tide. Prosecutors claim she simply didn't want the child. She says she was possessed by something demonic. Kayije Kagame plays Rama, a writer who also happens to be pregnant. She observes the trial and Laurence's testimony, and she feels her own reactions shifting. "Saint Omer" is in theaters now. Barrie, I was curious to hear how you would feel about this because you are one of my mom friends. And I'm interested in how this struck you.

HARDYMON: Well, it is certainly a movie about - in part about motherhood and part about womanhood. And I think in main about race, it felt like to me. And so, you know, I have to say, you know, my experience of motherhood is - obviously everybody has different experiences. But I recognize a lot of this - you know, a lot of the issues that are brought up, a lot of the pain. But some of it I watched with, you know, empathy and horror, but have not - that was not necessarily my experience.

I will say I think this is one of the most interesting films about motherhood that I have ever seen. It reminded me a lot of a book that I really loved by Leila Slimani called "The Perfect Nanny," which is about a nanny who murders her charges. The depiction of terror and, you know, the sort of the fighting against the tide of everything that is happening around you - this is one of the best depictions of that. And in particular, I will say something I did recognize from the experience maybe of both of the women in the film is the kind of the emptiness when it comes - a sort of lack of understanding and a lack of help. Now, every time I see some depiction in pop culture of motherhood, there is this deep loneliness and deep abandonment that really suffuses it. And that is a terror that I recognize.

HOLMES: Yeah. Jourdain, I know that you had a lot of thoughts about this film as well. Tell me how you reacted to this.

SEARLES: I watched it the first time in Toronto, then again at New York Film Festival, then again. So it was obviously something that I kept on coming back to. But during that time period that I was watching it and rewatching it, I was also watching an Investigation Discovery show called "Deadly Women," which became my obsession last year. And I watched every episode of it. I was thinking about "Deadly Women" the whole time I was watching it because the way that the show is structured is you're introduced to the woman. There's foreshadowing to the crime, and then we pull back to see what the context of her life is. And usually it leads to a moment of desperation. And then after the moment of desperation is the murder.

It made me think a lot about the mothers who don't really have the support that they need, and not that I'm saying, oh, they don't have support, they're going to murder. But so much of the frustration of being a woman in the world and having this responsibility - more of a responsibility than the man, really, just by default - and not having the kind of emotional outlet for their frustrations. And I just found it to be really fascinating because so much of Laurence's problem is, is that she doesn't know what she's doing with her life. She's not happy. And so when you add a child into that, it just seems like this alien thing because it's like you can't figure out your life and now you're trying to figure out someone else's life. And that's so much - that's so much pressure. And I liked how much the film really digs into that.

HOLMES: Yeah, I was also fascinated by this just as an example of a piece of filmmaking made by a documentarian because rather than following a kind of a traditional plot structure where kind of one thing happens, then another thing happens, and then another thing happens and then you get an ending, it is observational. The film really just puts you in this courtroom to watch this happen in the way that perhaps a documentarian would and just kind of presents the story as it happens and doesn't necessarily try to build up to a big boom ending. Not that lots of documentaries don't do that, but I think - it didn't surprise me that this sort of came from a person who thinks like a documentary filmmaker because the film is really doing a lot with not that much in terms of big things. It does so much with perspective.

The first sort of day in the courtroom, you have these long, long, long takes of Laurence telling her story. It sounds like a weird thing to mention, but, like, the look of that shot with this kind of honey-colored wood and she has this sort of honey-colored sweater on and the color of her skin - it is to me a gorgeous shot in this really kind of surprising way because it's this really shocking story. And the next day when she testifies, you get a real shift of where the camera is. The camera is up by the judge. And so you get her from a different angle, where the shadows on her face are harsher. The look of her is harsher. There's one day when she comes in, and she's changed out of that kind of soft sweater into more of, like, what you would think of as like a...

HARDYMON: Court outfit.

HOLMES: I don't know if it's a prison uniform or something like that.


HOLMES: But it's a tougher fabric. It doesn't have the softness of that. And so, to me, the simplicity of how it is shot really drew attention to the aesthetics of it in a way that was really interesting to me, because you keep seeing her - there's a really interesting moment when Rama is kind of looking at Laurence. And they finally kind of make eye contact. And that eye contact is so unsettling. And it is so unclear. You know, I think Rama's reaction to it is so surprising to her because she does feel empathy. But she also feels terror. And I just think the simplicity of the setting, and in some ways of the whole thing, draws attention to a lot of really interesting techniques, I think, that make it so effective.

SEARLES: In the shot that you're talking about, she also smiles, which is so interesting. And I was at a Q&A with the actress. And she was talking about, like, how she didn't really understand the smile and that Diop had to kind of convince her to do it. And she thought, but why would she do this? Couldn't figure it out. Even when you're watching it, you're still really not sure. But it makes sense still even though you're not sure why it's happening.


HARDYMON: One of the things that's really good or feels very right to me is the fact that the character of Laurence is often saying she does not know why she did this. She is - in fact, I think at the beginning, she says, I guess this is what we're here to find out. You could imagine - not just imagine, but, you know, that's a feeling. The feeling of being so large that you don't know what - why you're reacting the way you're reacting is familiar and feels totally right, you know?

HOLMES: Yeah. I also, Barrie, really liked what you said about the film having such an interesting undercurrent and being about race, because when you see Laurence come into the room, you see the jury fill up with white jurors. And there are white judges. But for most of the run of it, that is all more - it's not subtext in the sense that it's very much, I think, being pointed out to you by looking at the selection of the jury and everything. But I think that story runs really in parallel with the explicit story that Laurence is telling. And you learn that she has this older white man that she had this child with in the first place. It's just interesting. But it's not asserted in a kind of a...

SEARLES: Well, it's not asserted in an American way, where in terms of, like, American cinema...

HOLMES: That's correct. Yeah.

SEARLES: ...This is something that you would point out. There'd be close-ups.

HOLMES: There you go.

SEARLES: Maybe people would say things that were ignorant.

HOLMES: There you go.

SEARLES: And instead, it's just presented as matter of fact. And it was an interesting thing hearing from the actress that the trial was so big for Black - like, Black women everywhere were so fascinated by this trial because, she said, apparently, there aren't a lot of Black women in prison in Paris, which I thought was really interesting because it was just like, is that true? I'm not even sure. But this idea that here in America, we have this culture where the racism is more overt, kind of in your face when you're talking about crimes, and especially when you're talking about, like, publicizing of mug shots, the way that things are discussed...

HOLMES: Right.


SEARLES: ...And stuff like that where it's like - this doesn't happen as much in France at that time. So it was a big moment for that reason. But there's also - something that I really love about the film is how it doesn't really introduce a character.

HARDYMON: You hear them talking before you ever see them.

SEARLES: Yeah. For example, the father of the child and Laurence's partner, you see him come and sit down. But you don't know who he is until, like, several scenes later. And he's just been sitting there this whole time. And when he gets up, it's like, oh, it's him, you know (laughter)?

HARDYMON: That dude. Yeah (laughter).

HOLMES: Yeah, absolutely. And I think it's also so economical in the way that it uses scenes of outside the courtroom, of Rama's life with her partner and her family. I think it is so economical in how it suggests the things that she is feeling and frightened of. But, again, the assertion of those things is not maybe as overt as it would be in some other versions of this story. And I just want to say, I think it's so fascinating to me that anybody even thought to make this film because it is such a hard topic. I don't know that there is anything that is more third rail in terms of getting people to kind of work through it - through a regular lens of justice and ethics and psychology and things like that - than the killing of a child, particularly by a mother. And so I think it's just so interesting that she even chose to take this on even though there is this, you know, very public case that it's based on because it's so, so difficult. The level of difficulty is so, so high. I guess that's what I'm trying to say.

HARDYMON: I don't know if this is true or not, but it feels to me like that's quite a French thing to do. Like, we were referencing Marguerite Duras.


HARDYMON: Like, there is a kind of intimacy with third-rail topics - right? - that I think feels particular to France. One of the reasons that, you know, as Jourdain was saying, that it's so much - I'm so relieved that this was a movie that was made not by an American, right? It's because she's able - you know, she takes it at the pace of the events themselves, right? It feels like we have been sitting there for the entire trial by the time we get to this extremely important moment where there's a closing, right? There is no sensationalization (ph) of it. Nothing is overwrought so that you are just faced with the truth of it.

SEARLES: Yeah. I think one of the things that fascinates me about this film so much - and it shouldn't because it should be more normal. But the way that being a Black mother is represented often in media - it's extremes. You know, she would do anything. She has no life of her own. Or she's just negligent, or she's gone, or she's mean, like when you think about something like - for example, like "Precious." And so allowing for a Black woman to have the kind of complications that you would see - when we talk about white motherhood, I feel like there's a lot more interest and nuances. And you have things like "The Lost Daughter," and it's like, do I like my kids? Do I not? Where - when we talk about Black women, we don't even consider most of the time that she has an interior life aside from her role as a mother and how societally she's seen as a mother. So I was just so fascinated by the idea that, like, she doesn't know what she wants to do. She's having trouble doing her thesis. Like, I get that.


SEARLES: You know?

HOLMES: Real relatable.

SEARLES: She wants to do something important. She feels the pressure of doing something important as a Black immigrant in France, where you go to be an intellectual. And she feels like she's falling short. And how much of the film is about just her disappointment with herself and her feeling like she's not living up to her potential? And so when you put it in the context of, oh, and then she has a child, it's like - you know, it starts to make sense, like, why it just seemed like a shock to her. And just the idea that a Black woman could be indifferent to motherhood...

HOLMES: Yeah. To the degree that, you know, a film can be said to sort of pose a moral question, which they obviously don't always - but, you know, I think one of the questions that it poses is, would it have averted this tragedy if her ambivalence about motherhood had not seemed so dangerous to her and were not as hard for her to talk about? - because there is always in any film that is about a trial - and, you know, you can take this to particularly a trial that is so - this film in some ways reminds me of "The Passion Of Joan Of Arc," which is, you know, this very intense, super close-up - it's all the back and forth between the judges and Joan of Arc. There's always that question of, how do we judge this woman? Right? It's all about the judging of this woman. And it's really interesting because I think it brings in, like I said, this question of, if socially she were allowed her ambivalence and her uncertainty about wanting to be a mother, could that have averted this tragedy, you know?

HARDYMON: We haven't talked very much about the role of Rama and also her own family's story in this, which is another example of allowing the complexity of this pregnant woman watching who has her own very difficult relationship. And I found myself in the later scenes that are these flashbacks, sort of hallucinations - it's hard to tell - that her own mother has not been allowed the complexity of her experience. And I was absolutely a wreck sobbing because, you know, she has really built her case for the depth of loneliness and invisibility.

And one of the things that I thought was such an interesting choice is that at the end, which is done in this almost single shot where the defense attorney is saying, here is how I think you should think about what happened, she's just staring at the camera into your eyes. It is absolutely a closing that is directed at the audience. That argument at the end, which I thought was, you know, really the climax of the film, is given to you by this white attorney. And I did not expect that. I thought that I wanted that defense to come from Laurence because I think I'm used to American films where you get to have that.

HOLMES: Oh, yeah.

HARDYMON: But there was something really particular about this person delivering this to me that really knocked me out. And I'm still thinking about it. I'm still sort of wrapping my head around that choice. How did you guys feel about that?

SEARLES: I mean, I was crying (laughter). The film doesn't really tell you whether anyone believes what they're saying or not.

HOLMES: Oh, yeah.

SEARLES: Like, it's hard for me to tell who means what they're saying. Well, except for the baby daddy - he meant everything that he said. And that was...

HOLMES: That coward.

SEARLES: Honestly one of the best scene in the movie because, like - I guess I'm, you know, comparing it to American film again. There'd be a way where he would immediately be presented as trash. But instead he just talks, and he reveals himself to be trash without changing, like, cadence, without any kind of - like, it's just like, oh, you really just did not pay attention to her. And you really just thought that she would...

HOLMES: The slow trash reveal.

SEARLES: ...Just take care of everything (laughter), you know?


SEARLES: So when it comes to the ending, it's like - I kept on wondering - I mean, you know, I was sobbing. But also, I was wondering, does she believe this? Or is she saying...

HOLMES: That's...

SEARLES: ...What she thinks is...


SEARLES: ...Going to appeal to everyone? And the things that she's saying are truthful. You just wonder what she's trying to do.

HOLMES: And, I mean, I think there's a difference between, does everybody believe literally the things that they're saying, right? You know, when there's these kind of discussions about something possessed her or she thought something possessed her or she was having, you know, dangerous visions or whatever, it's one thing to literally believe that. It's another thing to say the thing that you can't really say as a criminal defense, which is there are mysterious things that we don't always understand about the intense experience of having children.

HARDYMON: A human.

HOLMES: And obviously, I don't want to be understood to be saying, like, and those things sometimes naturally lead to this outcome. That's not what I'm saying at all but that really, what the attorney wants to say is, given this woman's life and given this woman's experiences, perhaps there is some empathy that you can find for this very baffling and overwhelming experience that she was having. Well, as you can tell, we have a lot of thoughts about this. I suspect a lot of you will, too. We want to know what you think about "Saint Omer." Find us at facebook.com/pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Jourdain Searles, Barrie Hardymon, thank you so much for being here.


SEARLES: Thanks for having me.

HOLMES: This episode was produced by Mike Katzif and edited by Jessica Reedy. Thanks to Sarah Knight for their research assistance on this episode. Hello Come In provides our theme music. Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Linda Holmes. And we'll see you all tomorrow.

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