When Guslagi Malanda co-starred 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 — has appeared in just one film (French director Jean-Paul Civerac’s 2014 drama My friend is Victoria) and did not act for more than seven years.
Despite being obsessed with cinema and theater – she estimates she’s been going to plays or movies three times a week since she was 14 – Malanda, now 30, says acting was never even remotely on her radar. “It was a bit of an unrealistic dream, to be an actress,” she says. “I grew up in France, where none of the big actresses were black — none.”
Malanda Bhagavatar won My friend is Victoria After attending open auditions on a whim, a makeup artist friend involved in the project suggested she might be a good fit. Her performance was well received and she was signed by an agent – but she later turned down every part she was offered.
“All the stuff was very clichéd, playing the immigrant, the prostitute or the cleaner,” she recalls. “I decided to go back to my studies in art history and wait for better times for black artists in the industry.”
After completing her degree, Malanda began a career as a freelance curator (a field in which she is still active) and, later, befriended aspiring documentary filmmaker Alice Diop, with whom she shared overlapping social and professional circles. Diop received a César for her debut short film Towards tenderness and multiple prize winner at the 2021 Berlin Film Festival for his feature documentary we areMalanda encouraged him to audition for a role in a film he was developing as his feature debut – What Could Happen. Saint Omer.
“After going through all the steps with Alice of Making Saint OmerI realized that it was always in my gut to be an actress — probably from the beginning of my life,” says Malanda now.
Saint Omer It was inspired by the real-life case of Fabienne Cabou, a young Senegalese woman who was convicted in 2013 of killing her 15-month-old daughter on a beach in northern France before being washed away by the tide. Diop’s film follows French-Senegalese author Rama (Kaize Kagame), who becomes increasingly obsessed with the case and travels to the northern French town of Saint Omer, intent on turning the tragic event into a literary one. A novel. But as she learns more about the alleged 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 memories of her own immigrant mother and her pregnancy. , she was hiding from those around her.
Diop gave Malanda the role of co-star Lawrence Colley, her version of the mysterious killer who stands trial at the heart of the story. Malanda says Diop gave him only two directions, primarily and during production: to sit very upright in the court – like the woman in Leonardo da Vinci’s timeless portrait; La Belle Ferroniere – and always holding his gaze intensely, to a fixed place in space.
Malanda did some initial online research about Fabien Kabou and was immediately intimidated by the process. “I had nightmares for a year before shooting – about me standing in front of her or her,” she says. “It was awful. But at the same time, it was appropriate, because the real story is awful.
Diop and Amrita David’s script required Malanda to deliver lengthy monologues from the witness stand. “It wasn’t difficult for me to learn the text, because I have a good memory, but I told her I had to learn how to breathe, because some of the sentences in the script were too long and the situations too intense,” Malanda recalls. The solution she came up with was working with a Tai Chi master.
“I saw him twice a week and really focused on my breathing. Sometimes I cried during these lessons because I realized I was going to play a killer and I felt like I was becoming her,” Malanda explains. “But it helped me a lot. Breath is life, right? All the things inside me – my energy or my pain – I was able to calm down because of this breathing exercise.
Diop’s production process is an innovative mix of fictional filmmaking, stage play and documentary. Her crew filmed in the courtroom where the actual trial took place and placed local people from the surrounding community in the audience as witnesses to the trial. The film was shot chronologically, with the entire court cast and their locations, performing perfectly whether on camera or not.
The trial scenes were shot over three and a half weeks, taking up to an hour each. Malanda often spoke from the stand for 40 minutes without breaking – all of which were meticulously scripted – even though only 15 minutes of such sequences made it into the final film.
St. Omer is a two-hour train ride from Paris, where Malanda lives. During the first weekend break in construction, he traveled home to take a break. “As soon as I got there, I knew it was impossible,” he recalls. “I couldn’t be at home. I was completely Laurence Collie; I was no longer in hiding. I had constant nightmares, but my days felt like waking nightmares. It was very strange and intense.”
But on the final day of the shoot, Malanda says that his personal torment and weight suddenly lifted. She describes it as “the last day of my nightmare”.
Malanda added: “I think it happened because we shot chronologically. The last day of shooting was the last day of my trial, so I could put it behind me. At the same time, I was very sad. I suddenly stopped thinking about the killer and started thinking about the daughter, the victim. It was very compromising with murder. For two years, I focused on Lawrence Coley – and suddenly, at the end of it all, I was thinking about this little girl.
This story first appeared in the November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, Click here to subscribe.