Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Movie Review: Atlantics

Atlantics **** / *****
Directed by: Mati Diop.
Written by: Mati Diop & Olivier Demangel.
Starring: Mame Bineta Sane (Ada), Traore (Souleiman), Abdou Balde (Cheikh), Aminata Kane (Fanta), Ibrahima Mbaye (Moustapha), Amadou Mbow (Issa), Diankou Sembene (Mr. Ndiaye), Nicole Sougou (Dior), Babacar Sylla (Omar).
Mati Diop’s strange, beguiling, haunting debut film, Atlantics, has been described as a ghost love story – and so, I guess, it is. You can even find some overlaps if you want with 1990’s Ghost – another ghost love story – if you’re looking for them, but you shouldn’t go in expecting that. It is a strange, beautiful film – set in Senegal – is touches on many large scale, real life traumas – but it is human scaled – brought down to one young woman, who throughout the course of the film really discovers who she is – and becomes unafraid to express that. It is not quite like anything else you’ll see this year, even if there are probably some typical, first time filmmaker artiness to the film, that may have been better off not there at all. Still, as imperfect as it is, it certainly does announce Diop is a major new filmmaker.
The film starts out focusing on Souleiman (Traore) – a young man who has been working on construction for a very rich developer – who keeps claiming he doesn’t have the money to pay them, but he’ll have it soon enough. The cops are basically in his pocket, so they aren’t going to do anything. Souleiman is in love with Ada (Mama Bineta Sane) – a young woman, from a conservative family – who is set to marry the rich Omar – even though she loves Souleiman. Then, Souleiman disappears along with many of the other men who haven’t been paid – boarding an unsafe boat in the hopes of making it to Spain where they can make money. Their journey doesn’t go well.
From there, the films focus shifts to Ada. She starts off a shy, reserved girl – she comes from a conservative Muslim family – the kind who will make her go to the doctor to prove her virginity before she enters her arranged marriage to Omar. She is expected to do what she is told – and so she does, mostly. But then, strange things start happening. Her martial bed is set on fire, and suspicion fall on the absent Souleiman – who people think they see around. A cop starts investigating the case – but ends up more confused than ever.
Where the film goes from there, I will not spoil. Yes, there is a ghost story element to the movie – but you couldn’t really describe Atlantics as a genre film. The films narrative takes some very strange twists and turns – but they are basically gentle twists, not meant to shock, as much as inform. There are haunting moments – but done at the same scale as the rest of the film.
Atlantics looks amazing. The cinematography is by Claire Mathon – currently winning a lot of prizes for her work on Portrait of a Lady on Fire (if her work there is even better than it is here, than I really cannot wait to see the film). She captures the vibrancy of Senegal – but also the haunting qualities. It is set in a port town, and water is a major motif – the waves crashing gently – and makes that a visual theme throughout (watch the ways the curtains move – water is everywhere, even when it’s not seen). We probably could have done with fewer arty shots of water – at times, it feels like we’re cutting to them between every scene – but that’s a minor complaint.
Diop was an actress before making her debut feature film – perhaps best known for Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum. There is a little bit of Denis in Diop’s approach as well – in the way she doesn’t explain everything, doesn’t telegraph it. And Atlantics almost plays like a dream – recalling many other previous movies. But it’s an original from Diop – a strange, haunting debut film from a director who I cannot wait to see more from.

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