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Sea of love

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Critic After Dark

Atlantics
Directed by Mati Diop
Netflix

I DON’T think there’s much to uncover underneath the surface of Mati Diop’s feature debut Atlantics (Atlantique, 2019), now available on Netflix. It’s a love story — young girl Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) is in love with poor boy Souleiman (Ibrahim Traore) but is promised to wealthy Omar (Babacar Sylla) — and as with all such stories, the two lovers pine for each other for the duration of the film. Predictable simple trite — and yet and yet and yet

Souleiman sets out to sea; he has little choice as he’d been working on the new skyscraper in the suburbs of Dakar, Senegal, and hasn’t been paid in three months; the project boss, Mr. N’Diaye (Diankou Sembene), hasn’t the cash. Ada agrees to meet Souleiman on an illicit nighttime date, and discovers when she arrives at a dance club that all the young males had departed for Spain in a boat, in the hopes of finding new (and paying) jobs.

Souleiman’s departure doesn’t leave Ada much choice either: she allows her parents to marry her off to Omar, who whisks her off to a modern (and clean and tastelessly luxurious) apartment; when she brings her friends over to visit, the girls ooh and aah at the pristine furniture and appliances, take selfies while sitting on the backyard-sized nuptial bed, and declare “Omar can have me for a second wife!” Everyone seems happy for Ada except Ada herself, who can’t forget the departed Souleiman.

Except someone torched Ada’s bed. Except Souleiman was seen somewhere in Dakar that same night. Except someone has been harassing Mr. N’Diaye about the unmet payroll. Enter Detective Issa (Amadou Mbow) who pursues the case with single-minded fervor — or would if he wasn’t being constantly sidelined by a mysteriously debilitating affliction.

Along with Sane, Diop’s other major collaborators arguably are cinematographer Claire Mathon (Stranger by the Lake, Portrait of a Lady on Fire) and Fatima Al Qadiri. The cinematography is luminous: thick ambers and deep blues wrapped by blocks of solid shadow; Mathon can make the slums of Dakar look squalid during the day, hauntingly empty at night — when Ada visits the dance club, the lasers chase over her face and body like swarms of fireflies. Al Qadiri is a Senegalese musician, and her debut soundtrack (synthesizer producing celestial chimes and ominous basses) adds a gentle eerie otherworldliness to the most mundane images.

Diop’s matter-of-fact storytelling shows the influence of Clair Denis (Diop had acted in Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum) in her way of sidestepping into fantasy and her quiet manner making political points. Crushing poverty and futuristic wealth stand side by side, are by turns oppressively present and dreamily prospective. Souleiman takes a risky boat ride to Spain because his construction employer (building a technological wonder of a tower) can’t pay him; Ada is promised to a rich man because her family wants her cared for (unspoken: besides, they can use the money). At one point, Ada’s parents demand that she take a virginity test; she sits on the examination bed, the modern sterility of her surroundings mocking her submission to a barbarically ancient practice. Diop’s film is about something, but doesn’t make too much of a fuss about it.

A speculative note: Atlantics is an obvious title — the ocean is real presence, a constant background roar that lures Souleiman away and reminds Ada of his absence (the name derived from the legendary city, which takes its name in turn from the Greek god) — but one can’t help wondering if it’s also a reference to Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante — again a film about two lovers pining for each other, and their supernatural (spiritual?) link to each other. Vigo’s title has a different source: the huntress Atalanta, who challenged any would-be suitor to a footrace, and killed the losers. You’re reminded of this film’s willful heroine, and again wonder about connections.

The film isn’t perfect; Souleiman’s character feels underwritten — his name is a variation on “Solomon” or “man of peace,” and the symbolism sticks out — and you wonder just how committed he is to Ada, despite some vouching from unusual quarters. In Vigo’s film the lovers are on more equal standing, and you watch the story bifocally, from a pair of views. On the other hand, Diop isn’t as humorless as you might think; her treatment of Inspector Issa feels like an elaborate prank, the punchline being he’s as much of a patsy as almost everyone else. Then there’s the scene of Ada coming back to the dance club and her friend/proprietress informing her “the boys are back.” Ada looks in and sees a girl at the bar, stool turning to reveal her unseeing gaze.

Atlantics moves in genre and tone from verite realism to delicately sketched horror, from gentle romance to an eerie sense of dread and its transitions are occasionally awkward, much like the central performance — as Ada, Sane shows an unconfident grace, her limbs gawky as a filly’s. But like a filly there’s a lilt to her awkwardness, the promise of a stunning beauty to come. Did I say there doesn’t seem to be much beneath this film’s poetic surface? It’s about a youth growing into a woman, her adolescent pining swelling into abiding love, her little tantrums becoming acts of brave defiance, her passivity morphing into a distinct and spiky sense of self — likewise the film shakes off its genre accoutrements to stride off in its own direction, on its own unique gait. One of the best of the year, easily.

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