Atlantique review – African oppression meets supernatural mystery
23 May 2019
‘Some memories are omens,” says the heroine of this intriguingly ruminative and poetic movie from Mati Diop, making her feature film debut in the Cannes competition after an acting career that notably included work in Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum in 2008. Atlantique is in fact developed from a documentary short Diop made 10 years ago; she directs and co-writes with Olivier Demangel.
Atlantique is a Voodoo-realist drama, or docu-supernatural mystery, whose dimension of strangeness is unself-consciously baked into the movie’s ostensible normality. But this doesn’t undermine the pertinent things it has to say about the contemporary developing world. It’s a winter’s tale of a film.
At first, it seems a familiar enough story about migrants, boat people and sexual politics. Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) is a thoughtful young woman in Dakar, Senegal, where a huge, futurist luxury tower is being constructed, looming on the beachfront skyline facing the Atlantic Ocean (it is fictional, and digitally created for these distance shots). Ada is engaged to be married to Omar (Babacar Sylla), a wealthy but faintly obnoxious guy who spends half the year in Italy tending to his business interests – and may not intend to stick personally to those laws of monogamy and chastity that apply to a demure young bride.
In any case, Ada is in love with someone else: Souleiman (Traore) who is a building-site labourer working on the tower, and like everyone else he has not got paid for weeks. The property mogul in charge, Ndiaye (Diankou Sembene), has cashflow issues for which his workers must pay the price. And so Souleiman must decide if he will join the many young men who are going to climb into a flimsy boat and make the dangerous journey across the ocean to Spain. A better life awaits, in theory, but what of Ada?
The irony is unbearable. Ada herself is on the verge of a far better life, and apparently more easily attained, than any Souleiman can dream of – that of a rich woman. Her home, with its exquisitely ghastly marital bedroom, will be a masterpiece of garish luxury, the envy of her friends. But the gulf between what she is being forced to accept, and what she wants, is wider than any ocean.
What she has in common with Souleiman is, of course, servitude. Her personal capital as a beautiful, desirable young woman is greater than anything Souleiman can offer in terms of labour. But her self-hate could well be greater than any anguish Souleiman will suffer as a poor man paying his way – though this supposes that he will survive any sea journey.
And then something strange and unexpected happens. Souleiman’s behaviour is upsetting and mysterious. A police inspector enters the picture, suffering illness and maladies that some of Ada’s more disreputable and westernised friends share, and attribute to malign djinns. Souleiman sends Ada a text asking her to meet at a certain time in the middle of the night; is it real, or a sinister trap?
Atlantique is about the return of the repressed, or the suppressed: the men who were denied their rightful pay on the building site then faced the real possibility of a watery grave. Their spirit rises up, and this becomes a ghost story or a revenge story. Atlantique may not be perfect, but I admired the way that Diop did not simply submit to the realist mode expected from this kind of material, and yet neither did she go into a cliched magic-realist mode, nor make the romantic story the film’s obvious centre. Her film has a seductive mystery.