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Film Review: Atlantics

Atlantics (2019; Directed by Mati Diop)

Dakar, the capital city of the West African nation of Senegal, is surrounded on three sides by water, the mighty Atlantic Ocean. The spare, unexpected directorial debut from Mati Diop is set in this city and is similarly haunted by water, particularly by the vast unknowable ocean expanse that gives the film its title (its original French title is the singular Atlantique, and the pluralizing when translated to English is ambiguous).

Atlantics is a love story and a ghost story; the tagline from the trailer states with obscure poeticism that every love story is a ghost story. This one is about 17-year-old girl named Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) who is bethrothed by parental arrangement to a wealthy man named Omar (Babacar Sylla), who splits his jetsetting time between Dakar and Italy and whom she does not love. She loves Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), a poor construction worker building a futuristic skyscraper that looms above the low, sweltering skyline of the city like an absurdly oversized minaret (Senegal is 95% Muslim, you should know; I did not). The film’s first scene sees Souleiman’s crew demanding three months’ wages owed to them from the foremen, who can do nothing; the money is not forthcoming from wealthy local developer Mr. Ndiaye (Diankou Sembene), as we later learn. The crew rides home in the back cab of a pickup truck, Souleiman pensive and silent as his coworkers sing and chant, taking refuge in fleeting mirth.

Souleiman and Ada glimpse each other from either side of a railroad crossing while waiting for a train to pass, snapshot images of bashful young love between rumbling train cars. They kiss in an abandoned building by the ocean, but are chased away, and Ada’s friends warn her to leave him off, as she is due to marry Omar in mere days. Her dilemma is resolved, it seems, with unforeseen tragedy and mystery: Souleiman and his construction brothers, denied pay for their work, boarded a migrant boat and made for Spain and its opportunities; fragmentary evidence suggests that their boat capsized and broke in half, and they are dead. Their demise is complicated, however, when Souleiman is seen again on the same night as a baffling, seemingly spontaneous-combustion fire that burns a hole in Ada and Omar’s opulent, putative wedding bed; police investigator Issa Diop (Amadou Mbow) suspects Ada’s involvement, although his efforts to look into the matter are interfered with by bouts of a recurrent sweaty, dizzy illness. Related, strange somnabulent spirit-possessions affect the young women left behind by the migrated men as well, and with their blind white eyes they seek both fiduciary restitution from Mr. Ndiaye and a more romantic resolution to Ada and Souleiman’s star-crossed adoration.

Atlantics is a quietly stunning film, its cinematography a model of grainy magnificence from French DoP Claire Mathon and its burbling, unsettling score from German-based Kuwaiti composer and conceptual artist Fatima Al Qadiri weaving a vision of ghostly, evocative realism. Images of spectral possessions in the night crop up: the possessed women crossing a road towards the sea in a loose formation; a queue of vehicles, their headlights in a meandering row, inch along a lane between dilapidated brick homes in the city’s sprawling poor neighbourhoods. Numerous scenes, including the haunting romantic climax, take place in a modest seaside bar frequented by Ada and her girlfriends, who feel the ineffable absence of their disappeared men: a cheap rotating disco lighting rig twinkles on Ada’s skin with emerald corpse glow pinpricks, and its wall of mirrors reflects the ghosts of the vanished boys in place of the human vessels they inhabit.

But water – natural, artificial, spiritual, corporeal – is the dominant recurrent motif used by Diop (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Olivier Demangel) in Atlantics. Its insistent ever-presence presses on almost every scene, be it the background or the interstitial scene-transition frames of the image and sound of the waves, eternally in motion but always static and eerily still as well. That vast ocean, terrifying but beautiful, is the last resting place of Souleiman and his fellow migrating workers (although their restless souls travel back to land to find peace), and it also becomes the enduring ether for his love with Ada, their final spectral/corporeal reunion before the reflective water-like glass of the bar followed by a poetic epigram spoken over a sea-horizon sunset, identifying their surviving memories of each other with the cries and the whispers and the lapping and the crashes of the waves. The wetness of perspiration characterizes the mysterious sweating daytime fever that accompanies the nocturnal spirit-possession episodes; an imam advises the mother of one affected girl to immerse Qu’ran verses in holy water as part of a mystical liquid cure for the condition. The fires that the ghosts seem to magically set to compel the outcomes that they seek in order to achieve peace are an elemental counter to this prevalence and dominance of water.

Water also symbolically summarizes her distance from Omar due to his alienating wealth. His first appearance sees them sitting poolside and not speaking to each other at a luxury hotel, colourful tropical drinks left untouched on tables; he goes to get another and an advertisement for the modern new tower plays behind him, associating his wealth and privilege with the image the building seeks to project, its mission to bring such liquidity to Senegal. Omar dives into the hotel’s infinity pool, its invisible edge bleeding into the expanse of the ocean in an interrupted illusion of continuity betrayed by a metal contemporary art sculpture of a halved human face at the threshold. Diop’s camera lingers on this half-face at the water border between the artificial and the natural, contemplating this trompe-l’oeil and its seductive treachery, one shared by global capitalism.

Atlantics is poetic and profound in its water themes, but it lacks a deep dive into its political and historical implications. The subplot about African modernization and elite-concentrated wealth being underscored by labour exploitation and driving dangerous, fatally failed migration makes its points clearly and succinctly while tying those points into the film’s supernatural conceit. It does not tie those elements into the broader and more difficult and tragic history of wealth and exploitation in this part of the world. Unseen and unreferenced off the peninsula that Dakar is built on is the island of Gorée, the infamous West African slave trade depot. Although Gorée may not have been a major slave trading venue, the Maison des Esclaves on the island dating to the 1770s has taken on a symbolic resonance to descendents of enslaved Africans, and the site is often visited by foreign tourists as the Auschwitz of slavery, a solemn, venerated memory depository of a historical atrocity whose trauma is diffuse, elided, a matter denied and pressed back into the earth still by a world that benefitted from it for so long. Ringed by the ocean crossed by slave ships full of stolen Africans that serves as a watery mass grave for those whose Atlantic journeys, like Souleiman’s, ended in tragedy, Gorée is a ghost, silent and blind-eyed but speaking multitudes with its persistence.

For a film that invokes ghosts, Senegal’s colonial past is not glimpsed in Atlantics, outside of a few snatches of French dialogue (most of the dialogue is in the country’s lingua franca, Wolof; French seems like a tongue of professional and public life only). This is no doubt purposeful: Atlantics is a film about the now, with an undercurrent of urgent vitality that belies its spectral rhythms. Outside the text of the film, however, Senegal’s colonial ties to France are undeniable in Atlantics‘ funding, production, and reception: in addition to its cinematographer and co-writer, the film’s producers are French with some Belgian co-funding, and the film won the Grand Prix at Cannes, where Diop was the first black female director with a film in competition at the prestigious cinema-arts gatekeeping festival (shocking, but maybe not). Whatever the cinematic production and promotion infrastructure that made it happen, Atlantics is a unique and memorable creative expression of a new film artist worth watching, a work of beauty and febrile, elegiac fragility.

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