When Mati Diop’s Atlantics was released on Netflix last November, I added it to my watchlist and bided my time, saving it for best – like a nice dress hanging in the wardrobe for a special occasion. I was waiting for that magical do-nothing evening when the baby went to bed early and I didn’t feel knackered enough to fall asleep brushing my teeth. The night never came – lockdown did instead – and it wasn’t till one morning in June that I pressed play and was completely undone by Diop’s film, a ghostly love story, whodunnit and Greek tragedy rolled into one, with a spontaneously combusting wedding bed and beautiful zombie women (“Dig our graves. Dig with your hands till they bleed”). It’s haunting, powerful and so female.
Atlantics opens as an immigration love story. Diop, who is 38, half French and half Senegalese, said in an interview last year that she hadn’t seen a film with black characters who were up there with Romeo and Juliet. Her couple are head over heels in me-and-you-against-the-world impossible first love; it will never work. Mama Sane plays Ada, a young woman in Dakar who is soon to be married off by her parents to a rich older guy. But she is in love with Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), a labourer who works on a building site on the edge of the city. His boss, a venal property developer, hasn’t paid anyone in three months. After a confrontation about money, Souleiman and his friends drive home in the back of a pickup. Their mood is edgy and elated. But Souleiman runs his hand through his hair, desperate, despairing. You assume he’s worrying about money.
Actually, it turns out that Souleiman is thinking about leaving. Without telling a soul, he and his friends have made a pact to set sail to Spain – 2,000km across the Atlantic for a better life, or death, if things go badly. There’s a stunning strange scene on the night they go, when their girlfriends arrive at a beachfront bar to party and realise what’s happened – a room full of women without men, the left behind. It brought to mind stories of women after the first world war dancing in pairs at tea dances, their dreams shattered. The characters in Atlantics all talk about “crossing the sea”. No one ever says: “He sailed to Spain.” I wonder if that’s because so few make it. Claire Mathon, director of photography, hauntingly shoots the ocean as vast and fathomless. It’s not calming or magnificent; it’s a graveyard.
If Diop’s ambition stopped here, she would have made an authentic, moving drama. But then a kind of fever takes hold of the film. Ten days after Souleiman’s disappearance, on the night of her arranged marriage, Ada’s wedding bed bursts into flames. The young police detective (Amadou Mbow) called in to investigate arson suspects Souleiman is behind the incident – maybe he didn’t leave town after all. Then Ada gets a text from an unknown mobile number claiming to be from Souleiman, asking her to meet him in the dead of night.
And something is happening to the left-behind girlfriends. By the light of the moon they sleepwalk, barefoot in their nightdresses, eyes milky white like zombies, to the house of the property developer, demanding the unpaid wages. Is this a case of supernatural possession or mass hysteria?
Diop clearly has a knack for working with first-time actors. She found Traoré on a construction site. She walked up to Mama Sane, a trainee seamstress, on the street in Dakar. Both inhabit their characters beautifully. Souleiman does not have much screen time, but Diop and Traoré make him real, a sensitive but resilient young man – he doesn’t walk away from conflict. It’s important that he’s believable, a person, not a statistic or headline (as I type this, the body of a 16-year-old teenage Sudanese boy washes up on a beach near Calais).
And what a debut for Diop, an actor best known for appearing in Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum. Atlantics is the first film directed by a black woman to screen in competition at Cannes, where it won the grand prix. Earlier this year it was shortlisted for the Academy Award for best international feature film. Diop has said she’s not in a hurry to make another film. Let’s hope she changes her mind.
Atlantics is available on Netflix worldwide