The first film ever in competition at the Cannes Film Festival directed by a black woman, “Atlantics” leaves an impact in the cinematic universe sure to be felt for years to come. This is Mati Diop’s first feature length project, although the French-Senegalese director has made four acclaimed shorts prior to this. Set in a suburb of the city of Dakar along the Atlantic coast, this brooding and surrealist ghost story envelops the viewer. The french influence is clear from the jump, as the film starts with several wide shots of the city. Slow moving panning shots create a detached and observational feel while the film’s score by Fatima Al Qadiri fills the space in an eerily beautiful way.
Looming in the distance is a new luxury tower under construction. A group of fed up construction workers demand their back pay, having been stiffed for the last three months by the tower’s crooked owner. One of these young men is Soulemain (Ibrahima Traoré) the lover of the film’s star, Ada (Mame Bineta Sane.) He goes to meet her after his shift to see her one last time as the men have resolved to leave Senegal in search of work in Spain, and plan to leave that night by boat. Later that evening the young women in town gather at a seaside bar run by Ada’s friend Dior (Nicole Sougou) wherein it becomes clear the men won’t be joining them. At this point the tone of the film shifts from a realistic drama — Ada and Soulemain’s romance had been secret as she was arranged to marry the wealthy Omar (Babacar Sylla) to appease her family — to a dreamlike ghost story. During their wedding reception Ada and Omar’s marital bed catches on fire. Witnesses claim to see Soulemain starting the fire despite him being lost at sea. An investigation for arson is opened while Ada is closely followed by Issa (Amadou Mbow) a young detective. With her family’s wellbeing in jeopardy Ada is subjected to an invasive “virginity test” showcasing the direct correlation of wealth disparity to women’s rights. Ada’s purity and therefore marriage suitability is paramount to her having a stable future coming from a lower income family.
A mysterious illness falls over the young women of the town as well as Issa the detective. Feverish chills lead to a nightly possession of their bodies while they wander the town with milky white eyes seeking revenge. The women gather at the home of the tower’s owner to demand the lost men’s missing wages. As they’re taken over by the spirits of the missing men the women take on a more masculine gait, walking casually but with purpose and wide strides of determination. Emboldened by her commitment to the memory of Soulemain’s love, Ada finds herself striking out on her own. She eschews the expectations of her family and Omar and takes up work with her friend Dior, all while defending herself against the intense investigation of Issa. Strikingly beautiful and vast shots of the Atlantic ocean puncture scenes of a town gripped with an inexplicable haunting.
The film’s lone love scene comes towards the end, and with so much tenderness and passion it’s difficult to describe as the cinematography by Claire Mathon is breathtaking and enchanting. The film’s climax and resolution hit on everything this story is about. It’s about classism and it’s effects on every part of life. Financial burdens prevented Ada and Soulemain’s love from blossoming, and effectively caged the young women of the town to a life of limited choices. The decision to use a traditional ghost story helped give more emotional credence to what is a common problem throughout this world. The only issue with Atlantics is the occasionally sparse script. It felt like it could’ve been condensed into a longer short as opposed to the 104 minute run-time but the visuals and soundtrack created a richly interesting atmosphere that the terse dialogue can be forgiven. Mame Bineta Sane in her first starring role gives an incredibly nuanced and moving performance as Ada, and is one of the film’s highlights. Atlantics is a film worth watching and rewatching to fully grasp its many shades of beautiful storytelling.