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When Guslagie Malanda landed the co-starring role in the acclaimed French courtroom drama Saint Omer — winner of the Venice Film Festival’s Silver Lion and France’s official submission for the best international film Oscar race — she had appeared in just one movie (French director Jean-Paul Civeyrac’s 2014 drama My Friend Victoria) and hadn’t acted in more than seven years.
Although obsessed with cinema and the theater — she estimates she’s gone to plays or movies three times a week since she was 14 — Malanda, now 30, says acting was never something that was even remotely on her radar. “It’s a bit of an unrealistic dream, becoming an actress,” she says. “I grew up in France, where none of the big actresses are Black — none.”
Malanda won the part in My Friend Victoria after attending open auditions on a whim when a makeup artist friend involved in the project suggested she might be a good fit for it. Her performance was well received and she was signed by an agent — but she subsequently declined every part she was offered.
“All the things were so cliché, like playing an immigrant, a prostitute or a cleaner,” she remembers. “I decided to just go back to my studies in art history and wait for the time when things would be better for Black artists in the industry.”
Upon completing her degree, Malanda began a career as an independent curator (a field in which she is still very active) and, later, became friends with rising documentary filmmaker Alice Diop, with whom she shared overlapping social and professional circles. Diop, a César recipient for her early short film Towards Tenderness and a multiprize winner at the 2021 Berlin Film Festival for her feature documentary We, encouraged Malanda to audition for a role in the film she was developing as her debut narrative feature — what would become Saint Omer.
“After going through all the stages with Alice of making Saint Omer, I realized that being an actress, actually, was always in my gut — maybe since the beginning of my life,” Malanda says now.
Saint Omer is inspired by the real-life case of Fabienne Kabou, a young Senegalese woman who was convicted in 2013 of murdering her 15-month-old daughter by abandoning the infant on a beach in northern France to be swept away by the tide. Diop’s film follows a French-Senegalese author named Rama (Kayije Kagame) who becomes increasingly obsessed by the case and travels to the northern French town of Saint Omer, where the trial will be held, with the intention of turning the tragic event into a literary novel. But as she learns more about the accused woman’s life and actions — and reflects on the similarities and differences between their lives as women of Senegalese descent in French society — she becomes increasingly anxious about her memories of her own immigrant mother, as well as her pregnancy, which she has been hiding from those around her.
Diop offered Malanda the co-starring role of Laurence Coly, her version of the enigmatic murderer who stands trial at the heart of the story. Malanda says Diop essentially gave her only two pieces of direction during prep and production: To sit very erect in the courtroom — like the woman in Leonardo da Vinci’s timeless portrait La Belle Ferronnière — and to always hold her gaze, intensely, to a fixed spot in space.
Malanda did some initial online research about Fabienne Kabou and was instantly terrified by the process. “I had nightmares for one year before shooting — about me as her, or her standing in front of me,” she says. “It was awful. But at the same time, it was appropriate, because the real story is awful.”
The script by Diop and Amrita David required Malanda to deliver lengthy monologues from the witness stand. “Learning the text wasn’t difficult for me, because I have a good memory, but I told her I really need to learn how to breathe, because some of the sentences in the script were very long and the situations very intense,” Malanda recalls. The solution she arrived at was to work with a tai chi master.
“I saw him two times a week and really focused on my respiration. Sometimes I cried during these lessons, because I realized I was going to play a murderer and I felt myself becoming her,” Malanda explains. “But it helped me a lot. Breathing is living, right? All the things I had inside me — my strength or my pain — I was able to make quiet because of this breathing exercise.”
Diop’s production process was an innovative blend of fiction filmmaking, stage play and documentary. Her crew filmed in the courthouse where the real trial was held, and she cast local people from the surrounding community to be in the audience as witnesses to the proceedings. The film was shot chronologically, with the entire courtroom cast present and in their places, performing fully whether they were on camera or not.
The trial scenes were shot over three and a half weeks, with takes lasting as long as an hour. Malanda says she often spoke for an unbroken 40 minutes from the stand — all of this meticulously written — even though only about 15 minutes of such sequences made it into the final film.
Saint Omer is a two-hour train ride from Paris, where Malanda lives. During the first weekend pause in production, she traveled home to take a break. “As soon as I got there, I knew it was impossible,” she remembers. “I couldn’t be home. I was totally Laurence Coly; I was not Guslagie anymore. I was having constant nightmares, but my days also felt like a waking nightmare. It was very strange and intense.”
But on the final day of shooting, Malanda says, all the personal torment and weight she had been feeling suddenly lifted. She describes it as “the last day of my nightmare.”
Malanda adds: “I think that’s because we shot chronologically. The last day of shooting was the last day of my trial, so I could leave it behind me. At the same time, I was very sad. I suddenly stopped thinking about the killer and was thinking about the daughter, the victim. It was very much a reconciliation with the murder. For two years, I was focused on Laurence Coly — and suddenly, at the end of everything, I was thinking all about this little girl whose life was taken.”
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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