A mother is on trial for murdering her child. We know how, but not why. Nor does the mother. She does not deny the act but denies that she is the guilty party. The trial, she hopes, will explain things.
Ditto for Rama (Kayije Kagame) sitting in the courtroom. She is a writer of some success and attends the trial of Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda) for her next work. Rama is also four months pregnant and worried. Not that she will turn out like Laurence Coly, but like her own mother. Laurence Coly’s mother (Salimata Kamate) is also at the trial. A theme emerges.
Directed by Alice Diop, Saint Omer — named after the French city where the trial takes place — is a courtroom drama that becomes more and more theatrical as the narrative proceeds. Diop methodically paces the proceedings, revealing bits here and there, often casually and through what is unsaid as opposed to what is spoken. It’s a luring effect that floats quietly along until the word “Medea” is said roughly halfway through, a reference to the Greek tragedy where a mother murders her two children to get back at her philandering husband.
This utterance shifts the drama of Saint Omer from the specific into something existential, but Diop resists the mythology of Medea by focusing on the relationship between mother and child. And when the defense attorney (Aurélia Petit) delivers the closing remarks, she does so directly to the camera. There are clear answers in Saint Omer, but answers are rarely assuring.
There’s also a death in 1934’s Imitation of Life — the answers are a lot clearer this time, but not any less complicated. The film, newly restored and available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection, opens with two single mothers: Beatrice (Claudette Colbert) and Delilah (Louise Beavers). Beatrice, white, is recently widowed and trying to keep her husband’s maple syrup company going. Delilah, Black, is a housekeeper in need of work.
By accident, their paths cross, and Delilah offers her services for free room and board for her and her daughter, Peola, a light-skinned girl who passes for white. Beatrice accepts, and after learning of Delilah’s secret pancake recipe, the two go into business and make a fortune flipping flapjacks and hocking syrup.
Time passes, and business is good to Beatrice and Delilah, who now share a fabulous new house. The daughters grow, and though no real friction between Beatrice and her daughter Jessie (Rochelle Hudson) develops, Peola (Fredi Washington) grows to resent her mother and her racial heritage. Peola continues passing as white — even denouncing her mother publicly when push comes to shove.
Adapted from the novel by Fannie Hurst, Imitation of Life is a multi-layered melodrama that feels staid in some places and fresh as a daisy in others. Beatrice climbs to the top of the pancake industry without compromising her integrity or product and eventually falls in love with a dashing ichthyologist — savor that phrase for a second. It’s the kind of B-story designed to distract you from what’s really going on between Delilah and Peola and how Beatrice capitalizes on Delilah’s visage and family recipe. Director John M. Stahl takes great care not to bury these threads, yanking on them in the movie’s stunning funeral sequence for maximum emotional effect.
ON SCREEN: Saint Omer, now playing theatrically. Imitation of Life, available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.