It’s difficult to know where to start with Atlantics. It’s a film of firsts, first and foremost: the first feature from Mati Diop, primarily known for her work as an actress and her award-winning short films; and earlier this year it was the first picture from a black woman to premiere in at Cannes. It’s a mysterious and moody drama that keeps changing shape, starting in the realm of social realism and growing progressively more fantastical and haunted. It’s also quite dull. But is this because it’s deficient on a narrative and formal level, or because there are reasons behind its organisation that have escaped this (white, male) critic on first glance?
Set in Dakar, along the Atlantic coast, and kicking off with a worker’s dispute – where Souleiman (Ibrahima Traore) and his fellow crew members have not been paid for their three months’ work on a giant tower – the film becomes a forbidden romance of sorts between Souleiman and Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), who’s engaged to a man she doesn’t love. The introductory shots of these characters are stunning; him in the back of a truck, in existential anguish as others celebrate around him, her glimpsed between the carriages of a passing train, each cut bringing them closer together. Yet as soon as their sweetly hesitant language of gestures is established, Souleiman attempts to escape across the ocean, towards Spain. Their boat is said to have been lost, but Ada’s wedding night is then disturbed by a massive fire – and Souleiman is spotted on the scene by one of her friends.
What follows is something where, again, mystery is key, and changes in register are both baffling and welcome in their potential to liven up the story – though there’s something frustratingly mellow about how the director chooses to convey most of this. Diop first came to prominence by starring in Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum, and while it would be entirely reductive to say that she attempts to mimic her style, there’s clearly an influence. She elides traditional dramatic beats in favour of something more self-consciously poetic, relying heavily on shots of roiling ocean waves, the interplay of light across the characters’ faces. This pays off in moments – a creepy ambush inside a house, a suggestive final scene – and the naturalistic acting is certainly worthy of praise. But does it mean anything?
Atlantics is available on Netflix from 29th November 2019.
Watch the trailer for Atlantics (Atlantique) here: