TWO OF THIS YEAR’S most compelling and finely wrought films plumb the depths of the mother-child dyad and the anguish of separation from family, culture, and self. Alice Diop’s Saint Omer and Nikyatu Jusu’s Nanny focus on ambitious, intelligent women of Senegalese descent who live, respectively, in France and the United States. Nanny is a cross-cultural psychological thriller spiked with horror. Saint Omer is a courtroom drama adapted in part from the transcripts of a trial of a woman who left her infant daughter on a beach at the water’s edge so that “the sea would carry her body away.” Yes, it, too, is a horror film.
The titular nanny of Jusu’s movie is Aisha (Anna Diop), a seemingly assured undocumented immigrant who takes a job caring for Rose (Rose Decker), the five-year-old daughter of a wealthy white couple (Michelle Monaghan and Morgan Spector) living in a spacious, almost immaculately converted loft building in Lower Manhattan. I say almost because one “scientific” explanation for the terrifying dreams and visions that gradually overwhelm Aisha’s reason is the black mold growing on the ceiling of the dark room in which she sleeps when her employers need her to stay the night. A more psychoanalytic interpretation is that the figures in her dreams are tricksters and water demons from West African folklore who come from her childhood memories and may be expressions of her rage.
This is the explanation offered by the grandmother (Leslie Uggams) of the Black American (Sinqua Walls) who’s in love with Aisha and promises her a future where she will no longer be torn between two worlds. It’s everything Aisha could want for herself and her son, Lamine, who’s about the same age as Rose. But her anxiety and guilt about having left Lamine behind until she can afford his plane ticket to New York grow by the day. Aisha is enraged at her own family and at society for shunning her as a single mother—thus limiting her son’s future if they had remained in Senegal—and also at her employers, who carelessly forget to pay her what she’s owed, thus delaying her purchase of Lamine’s plane ticket. That she has left her son in the care of a woman who has no more connection to him than she has to Rose is not lost on Aisha or us. Among Nanny’s many subtexts is the plight of working mothers, who, regardless of class or ethnicity, have no choice but to leave their children for long stretches of time with caregivers, who in turn have left their children with caregivers, and on and on. Aisha is better at parenting than Rose’s own mother, but that only makes the situation more difficult.
Nanny is almost entirely filtered through Aisha’s consciousness, which becomes more and more unstable and permeated by horrific projections. The imaginings and reality that terrorize her terrorize us as well. Jusu’s script and direction, aided by Anna Diop’s magnetic presence, weld character and viewer together with a dexterity uncommon in a first-time feature filmmaker. In a paradox that haunts many great horror films, as our protagonist becomes increasingly undermined by her own fear, her power over the audience grows. Her dread is contagious and binds us to her. “It’s so ingrained in this industry to center on whiteness,” Jusu explained in an interview, “that even when you have a Black woman filmmaker who has written the Black woman protagonist, there are certain stages of this process where you have to remind everyone that this is the main character and we are seeing the world through her eyes.” From the beginning, Aisha’s vision is bifurcated between the lush colors and casual, textured clutter of Harlem’s Little Senegal, where she rents a room, and the minimalist, coolly lit interior of the downtown condo where she works. Her dreams often intrude on her waking life, turning the river bordering the city and the pool where Rose swims into her son’s watery grave. Nanny’s gorgeous surface should not blind us to its narrative depth. It is no less serious for being a cinematic pleasure.
Saint Omer is a film of a different order. The first fiction feature by Alice Diop, a French Senegalese documentarian, it is a narrative about how and why we identify with another and how at its most dreadful our identification admits the other’s horror as our own. The opening image of Saint Omer is of a woman—barely a silhouette in the darkness that surrounds her—cradling something that could be a child, walking toward something we can only hear: waves crashing onto the shore. There is an abrupt cut to a woman in bed waking with a start, and the man next to her telling her that she was crying out in her sleep for her mother. It is rare for a film to pack so many layers of meaning into its first two images, but Diop’s storytelling choices are extraordinary from beginning to end.
In a paradox that haunts many great horror films, as our protagonist becomes increasingly undermined by her own fear, her power over the audience grows.
The character on the beach, who is the nightmare of the character in the bed, is Laurence Coly (Guslagie Malanda). Diop based her on Fabienne Kabou, a Senegalese woman who had been a student at the Sorbonne, first in law and then in philosophy, and who was put on trial for drowning her fifteen-month-old daughter, Elise. The character in the bed is Rama (Kayije Kagame), who is partly based on the filmmaker. Like Diop, Rama is French Senegalese and has a successful career in the arts (she’s a writer rather than a moviemaker). When Rama decides to cover the trial of the woman who murdered her mixed-race child, she is pregnant with a mixed-race child herself. Diop was already the mother of a mixed-race child when she saw a surveillance photo of Kabou with her child, became obsessed with the story, attended Kabou’s trial, and made a film that incorporates some of the actual testimony of the accused and of others who took the stand at her trial. So many layers of visceral and imagined experience, of fact and fiction. So many mothers and mothers of mothers.
It is suffocating, and yet, inside the courtroom, every eye movement—of characters who speak and characters who don’t—has a clarity that transcends the whirlpool of interpretation, judgements, and blinding fear. This is a woman who was disowned by her father when she switched her major from law to philosophy, who then became the mistress of a much older married man who agreed to support her until she got her degree. He got her pregnant but took almost no responsibility for their child, the child she said she was sending to relatives in Senegal so she could focus on her Wittgenstein thesis, although she had been told by her professor that she would do better to write about someone she could understand, an African philosopher perhaps. “I hope this trial will give me the answer,” Laurence/Fabienne says to the judge when asked why she killed her daughter. Is that not like saying, “The world is all that is the case”? That statement, the first proposition of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, is followed with “The world is the totality of facts, not of things.” But facts are not enough in the wake of an action that is both overdetermined and inexplicable.
I would have liked to read Laurence/Fabienne’s thesis on the Tractatus. But she was probably too insane to have written one, although who is to say that Wittgenstein was not also insane? I should add that shortly after the opening, Rama teaches a class on Marguerite Duras, who would have written brilliantly on Kabou and her crime. And that the film’s soundtrack ends with Nina Simone’s cover of Rodgers and Hart’s “Little Girl Blue.” And that Malanda’s performance contains worlds, as it were. As expansive as it is claustrophobic, Saint Omer tears the heart and boggles the mind.
Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Artforum.