Film Review – Atlantics
There are some films that exist to defy the conventions of storytelling. Three act structures with clear and precise plot points step aside in favor of mood, atmosphere, and tone. When a filmmaker can convey a theme or idea without having to rely on well-worn tropes, that’s when you know they have a voice entirely their own.
I have seen Mati Diop’s French/Senegalese film Atlantics (2019) twice now, and I sit here more mystified and fascinated than I did with the first watch. Putting it into words may not be enough. It’s part love story, part mystery, part horror – examining economic and gender inequalities in the capital city of Dakar in Senegal. Yet, it feels like a part of each but not belonging to any. Diop (who directs and co-writes with Olivier Demangel) refuses to allow the material to fall into any kind of box – it operates outside of categorization.
Ada (Mama Bineta Sane) is a young Senegalese woman who is arranged to be married to the handsome and wealthy Omar (Babacar Sylla). Ada’s friends and family find this union prosperous, as it secures Ada’s financial wellbeing. What they don’t know is that Ada is actually in love with construction worker Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré). Their rendezvous are sweet and innocent – where Ada feels closed off to most others, she opens her heart to Souleiman.
On the surface, this sounds like your typical romantic drama, but Diop has other plans in mind. Souleiman and his coworkers have been constructing a tower for the greedy Mr. Ndiaye (Diankou Sembene) who has not paid them in months. Desperate, Souleiman and a few others decide to take the risky chance of traveling via boat into the Atlantic Ocean toward Spain in hopes of obtaining better job opportunities. Ada learns of this second handedly – Souleiman leaving so abruptly he didn’t give a chance to say goodbye.
In lesser movies, the main point of tension would be the protagonist waiting to hear if their lover has survived their journey. Atlantics avoids this trap by pushing the focus on Ada and how this event shapes her emotionally. When we first meet her, Ada appears submissive, following along with what others want of her. Her upcoming marriage to Omar is handled like an exercise in obligation than a joyful celebration. Oddly, Souleiman’s disappearance ignites her willingness to embolden herself against others. Her love for him fuels her independence against a misogynistic situation.
But Diop throws us for a loop even further, inserting another thread separate from Ada’s story arc. This is where the narrative delves into the supernatural. Without giving too many details away, I will say that it has something to do with the construction workers and their desire to receive their pay from Mr. Ndiaye. Diop and Demangel take a bold step going in this direction – in the wrong hands this twist could have come off as hammy and too far in the absurd. But there’s subtlety in how Diop conjures up this other worldly phenomenon. It isn’t based on special effects or jump scares, but on lighting, shadow, and the suggestion of terror. Diop utilizes the “less is more” approach with convincing effect. Who would’ve thought that white contact lenses could leave such an impression?
Atlantics reminds me quite a bit of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), which involves the disappearance of students from an all girl’s school in Australia. Both examine the effect the vanishing has on the remaining characters. Both reveal certain themes regarding gender – Picnic featured all females disappearing whereas Atlantics had all males. And both don’t really concern themselves with providing thorough explanations. In Atlantics, we do get a resolution to the whereabouts of Souleiman and the rest of the workers, but Diop provides it like an afterthought. The narrative’s investment on him become less important compared to what it means for Ada and her blossoming as an individual.
Atlantics is the type of movie that digs its way into your mind and resides there long after you watch it. The strangeness of the story mixed with strong character work makes this worth discussing and dissecting. Throughout, Diop and her cinematographer (Claire Mathon) repeatedly return to shots of the open ocean, the waves gently stirring as the sun sets in the horizon. This isn’t simply a beautiful looking moment, but a bold and mesmerizing metaphor. Not only does it represent Souleiman’s journey into the unknown, but Ada’s quest to be free to make her own choices. If that wasn’t enough to get the point across, Diop closes the movie on a close-up punctuating what this movie is really about.
It’s a joy to find a film that’s brave enough to take chances, whether for better or for worse. In her feature length debut, Diop has given us an evocative look into a world not often seen, executed in a fresh and lyrical way. I look forward to seeing where her career goes next, and I hope audiences will follow along as well.