Saint Omer Star Guslagie Malanga on Playing an Infamous Murderess
Jan 22, 2023
One of the most haunting performances of 2022 came about in a very peculiar way. Guslagie Malanga had only starred in one film from 2014, and went on to earn an Art History degree and become an art curator in France. She befriended Alice Diop, who invited her to audition for a film she wace making about the infamous infanticide trial of Fabienne Kabou; the film would be called Saint Omer, named after the town where Kabou, a woman from Senegal, had lived in secrecy.
Malanga would take on the role of the woman who left her one-year-old daughter on the coast at high tide to drown. Diop, drawing from her skills as a documentarian, would blend fact and fiction for the film’s production, filming it in lengthy takes in the actual courthouse where Kabou was tried, creating the dialogue from the real court records, and using local citizens of Saint Omer to fill the room. Malanga wouldn’t use an acting coach; instead, she had a tai chi instructor.
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Thus began the production of Alice Diop’s award-winning drama, which would give Malanga great acclaim and horrible nightmares in equal measure. Malanga spoke with MovieWeb about Saint Omer, which has made the exclusive shortlist for the Best International Feature Oscar.
Saint Omer Puts the Truth in True Crime
Saint Omer is an interesting film, one which goes beyond being haunting and seems downright haunted. The film follows a young, Black woman named Rama (Kayije Kagame) as she visits the titular town to attend the trial of Laurence Coly (the film’s stand-in for Fabienne Kabou, played by Malanga). Rama is somewhat detached from the world, an aloof academic with family issues, and she develops a fascination with Coly, who she seems to relate to.
Most of Saint Omer is a courtroom legal drama, but a decidedly non-traditional one. Malanga is tasked with protracted monologues in recreating the trial, and is often the sole person in the frame, with the film refusing to cut away from her intense gaze. Her character is an enigma, self-contradictory, extremely intelligent (writing a thesis on Wittgenstein), and intimidating. The trial became infamous for Kabou’s insistence that the infanticide was the result of witchcraft and sorcery cast against her, and there is an almost supernatural element to Malanga’s presence. If Saint Omer is haunted, she’s the ghost.
Guslagie Malanga’s Athletic Performance
Diop’s only directions to Malanga was to sit up straight and fix her gaze at a certain point, using a Leonardo da Vinci painting as a reference point. “She was inspired by the Renascence paintings, and one of da Vinci’s paintings called La Belle Ferronnière,” said Malanga. “It’s a portrait of a woman, and she’s very straight, and with her gaze, you don’t know what’s happening inside her eyes.”
This actually ended up being great direction, because it’s a uniquely athletic and sculptural performance. While she may stand still as stone, casting her eyes intently upon one fixed point, there’s a lot of work that goes into manufacturing such intensity within the confines of this stillness, all while delivering pages of dialogue (which she says is roughly 100% accurate, with “maybe two words of difference”). “For me as an actress, it was very important to have that kind of position, that kind of body strength, because it allowed me to be more focused on the words, and the breath.”
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“The breath” was an important aspect of Malanga’s performance, hence the tai chi coach. She relates it to archery — the pull of the bow is an intake of breath, followed by strict stillness, and the plunge of the arrow is her release. “The first thing that you have to learn when you practice is to be strict,” said Malanga. “You have a deep breath, and you have your target. In a way it was a bit like that with Laurence Coly’s character. It wasn’t so easy for me. I prepared myself as an athlete for that role […] It’s about how we can find a way to be focused on language, on the words. To be straight allowed me to just be focused on the words. And so for me, it’s much more kind of athletic direction than an artistic one, in a way.”
A Haunting Portrayal of Fabienne Kabou
Portraying a real person is always a delicate task; portraying a woman based on a notorious infanticide case is downright fragile. By renaming Fabienne Kabou as Laurence Coly, the film hybridizes fact and fiction (further blurred by the fact that Rama is somewhat based on Diop herself, who attended the trial). There was always an ambiguity between how much Malanga would study Fabienne, and how much she would freely create Laurence.
“There was a kind of elicitation between the true one, Fabienne Kabou, and Laurence Coly,” said Malanga. “I was in between, and sometimes it was not so easy […] I decided not to do research on Fabienne Kabou; I didn’t even want to meet her. I was focused on the scripts, I was focused on the words and only the worlds, because the words are a story. So for me, I was curious about how she tells her own story.” Malanga continued:
Studying Kabou during the trial, she was much more hard, much more mean. I didn’t want to be so strong, so hard. I really wanted to play in between — is she desperate, or in control? So I prepared myself to be in between, to be in that kind of dark waters. Sometimes you can trust her, you can understand her, and sometimes it’s totally like, “Oh my god, she’s a murderer.”
The Trial of Guslagie Malanga
Malanga’s character is an enigma, emblematic of the mysterious depths of the human soul. The people in court want her to fit a fine binary, guilty or not guilty; they want her to either be a monster, indifferently murdering her own child, or they want her to be mentally ill, a victim of society and schizophrenia who blames sorcery for her iniquities. It’s a dark, complicated, and ambivalent character to inhabit, and it took its toll on Malanga.
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“I was in my own trial, during the shooting. Alice [Diop] told me,” continued Malanga, “that it was a kind of possession. It’s a bit true. I prepared myself, of course, but the first day when I came to Saint Omer, something happened. And I remember a friend, who is an actress, she told me, ‘You can’t play Laurence Coly only with your talent. Talent, it’s not enough. You have to work, and you have to accept to be her.’ And then I worked, and I accepted to be her. So for me, yes, it’s a kind of possession. She was inside me. I was her, and I was in my true trial. I really was that woman.”
Fabienne Kabou Haunts Saint Omer and Malanga Alike
Now that Saint Omer has finished the festival circuit (winning an astounding five prizes at the Venice Film Festival, along with top prizes in Toronto and Chicago) and is beginning a normal theatrical release ahead of the Academy Awards, one would think that the “possession” of Guslagie Malanga is over. It certainly felt that way on the last day of filming.
“The last day of shooting was for me the last day of my own trial. I felt I was completely out. It was done for me. Let’s go have all these interviews,” said Malanga. “But actually, in a way, a part of me is still in the train station.” Malanga elaborated:
You know the story. Fabienne took the baby inside the Gare du Nord train station, and 24 hours later, the camera showed her without the baby. So you have a camera shot with the baby, and 24 hours later you have the same camera without the baby in the train station. They’re very powerful images; it gave me a lot of nightmares to see that. So for me, a part of me is still on that station. And I think it’s because this was one of the most intense relationships that I have had with someone. I never met Fabienne Kabou, but I have her story inside me, in my memory. It’s weird, but I’m fine. I have no nightmares anymore.
Near the end of Saint Omer, a lawyer discusses the idea of genetic chimerism, or chimera cells. Something called feto-maternal microchimerism occurs during pregnancy, where the living cells of a fetus and mother are exchanged through placenta, and these cells can exist for decades. This means that a woman can contain the living cells of her mother and her daughter within her, in a never-ending chain. Perhaps Guslagie Malanga transferred cells with Fabienne Kabou; perhaps there’s always a remnant, some ghostly chimera, of the people actors portray.
Saint Omer is produced by Srab Films and co-produced by Arte France Cinéma and Pictanovo. Super is distributing the film for its theatrical release on January 13.
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