December 5, 2019


Mati Diop’s haunting ‘Atlantics’

By Luke Goodsell


The French-Senegalese director channels ancient fables and contemporary nightmares in this ghostly love story

Ghost stories have haunted the screen since the earliest frames of cinema, itself a medium of psychic transferral – spectral light beamed through celluloid – through which the dead can manifest across time. The phantom thread winding from Méliès to Assayas connects all manner of tricksters and malevolents, the displaced and the vengeful, but few films have communed with the beyond quite like Mati Diop’s Atlantics (now streaming on Netflix), an uncanny seance in which shipwrecked souls return to inhabit those they’ve loved and left behind.

Atlantics is the debut feature, and this year’s Cannes Grand Prix winner, from the French-Senegalese actor and filmmaker, following a decade of supple short films that spanned the globe. Set in modern Dakar, a port once adjacent to the colonial slave trade, which now seems perched on the precipice of a transnational abyss, the film summons a restless spiritual history that is also a familial one: its early images evoke those of the director’s uncle, Djibril Diop Mambéty, whose avant-garde, near-mystical Touki Bouki (1973) depicted the journey of young lovers attempting to escape the capital for an imagined aristocratic life in Europe. (The younger Diop explicitly explored that film, and the 40-year limbo of its lead actors, in her 2013 short, A Thousand Suns.)

That sense of cultural unease runs deep through the 21st-century city, where construction workers have spent years building a neo-futuristic skyscraper that rises from the dust, its twisted form as unreal against the landscape as an old studio matte painting. These workers, mostly young men in their early twenties, haven’t been paid for months, and in their desperation hatch a plan to hitch a ride on the next ship out to Spain – where, like the dreamers of Diop Mambéty’s classic, a better life presumably awaits.

Diop, who was born in Paris but spent intermittent childhood periods in Senegal, has a distinct eye for a realm in globalist flux, where wandering cattle mix with cheap bedroom stereos and glistening luxury pools; a world in which trans-dimensional forms might comfortably coexist. If her unofficial mentor Claire Denis, for whom Diop starred in 35 Shots of Rum (2008), once called the young director’s work a resident of “planète cinéma”, then Atlantics feels like a homecoming.

The director first explored Atlantics’ central idea in her 2009 short film of the same title, which recorded the ghostly fireside tales of Senegalese workers who’d attempted to flee to Europe, only to instead find themselves set adrift on the ocean, or transformed into fish. For the feature, she pivots to the perspective of the young women who experience their lovers’ absence. Ada (Mame Bineta Sané) is facing an arranged marriage to the slick, wealthy Omar (Babacar Sylla), but her true love is the dreamy, faraway Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), one of the impoverished construction workers about to make a fateful voyage across the sea. At a beachside club where the women, including Ada’s friends Fanta (Aminata Kane) and Dior (Nicole Sougou), go to dance, drink and meet men, Ada discovers that her boyfriend and his buddies are “out to sea”, and Diop teases Souleiman’s passage to the netherworld as Ada reclines in the bar lounge, specks of green party lights encircling her in a fishnet of digital fireflies.

Throughout, Diop and cinematographer Claire Mathon, who also shot this year’s other rapturous fever of coastal longing, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, devote an animistic gaze to supernatural sequences of light, water and physical spaces. Recalling the shapeshifting mist of her short Snow Canon (2011) and the all-seeing alien lighthouse that bookends Atlantics (2009), the film’s recurring wide shots of the Sahelian sun, hanging low over the shimmering ocean, act as incantations, while the synth score by Kuwaiti musician Fatima Al Qadiri gurgles up from some astral sea.

The delirium boils over as a young detective (Amadou Mbow), investigating the suspicion that Souleiman has returned to set fire to Omar’s tacky condo – resulting in a crater burned into the pristine, would-be marital bed that may as well be a portal into the underworld – is overtaken by an inexplicable fugue state. At the same time, a troupe of young women – beseeched by the witching hour and the spell of Al Qadiri’s soundtrack – march forth hypnotically into the night, animated by the spirits of the men lost at sea.

Even in a year spooked by bugged-out doppelgangers (Us), lumbering climate-crisis corpses (The Dead Don’t Die) and queasy throwback voodoo (the Haitian provocations of Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child), there’s no spectre as memorable as Diop’s all-ghoul girl gang, with their luminous-white eyes and low-chanted invocations; in a just world, the possessed Fanta, eerie and resolute in a battered Kellogg’s Froot Loops T-shirt, would be a sartorial meme as ubiquitous as Captain America wearing a damn cable-knit sweater.

Inverting the scenarios of its eponymous short, in which the men told stories of nightmares invading their bodies, Atlantics watches as the women become vessels for the laments of their lovers, the djinn whom Diop has referred to as faru rab – spirit boyfriends, or “husbands of the night” in Islamic mythology. Absorbing the foiled dreams, and fury, of their lovers, the young women are tasked with what Souleiman calls, in his final moments, the unburdening of their men’s hearts. In her own way, Diop has flipped those ancient fables in which sailors were lured to their demise by feminine apparitions of the sea; in Atlantics, the castaways instead heed a siren call of sanctuary, and the women become conjurers of salvation.

Atlantics is transformative, in that true magical sense. It shapes from recurrent historical nightmare a vision of tomorrow, and suggests souls lost to a contemporary migrant crisis might return and spark an emerging generation. “Every time you look at the top of the tower,” the phantom-channelling women tell the trembling construction-site boss, as they instruct him to dig the graves of the dead men he’s ripped off, “you will think of our unburied bodies at the bottom of the sea.” The image will haunt him, but Diop leaves us to linger on the face of a hopeful, newly emboldened Ada, in the knowledge that the future belongs to the dispossessed.

Luke Goodsell

Luke Goodsell is a critic and editor who has contributed to the ABC, SBS and the Melbourne International Film Festival.


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