Updated: Nov 24, 2019
In the modern dating world, “ghosting” has a certain connotation. Exes can “ghost” you. They depart from you without a trace, a goodbye, or even a parting gesture. Usually it’s because they’ve moved on, found a new person, or don’t want the responsibility of a long-term relationship — not because they flee the country and go off to sea to escape a corrupt businessman.
And, unlike social media “ghosting,” the ghosting that 17-year-old Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) experiences involves her boyfriend, Souleiman (Traore), actually coming back to her.
Part detective film, part romance, and part supernatural, “Atlantique” (Atlantics) seamlessly jumps across borders in ways Souleiman and his compatriots could only have hoped. Director Mati Diop, the first black woman to win a Cannes Grand Prix award, effortlessly presents a story that shines in portraying life’s ephemeral aspects. “Atlantique” shows that love and life are fleeting; wealth is temporary; status means nothing; and death is a new beginning.
Time, visualized by the sun setting or rising on the waves, is an overarching theme in this Senegalese spectacle. Throughout the film, the cuts between scenes are a shot of the sun on the endless waves. It’s serene, constant, unchanging — regardless of whatever hectic action preceded it. Even though time is unchanging and the waters will forever remain powerful, Diop does not neglect to combine the temporary and human with the permanent and superhuman; as Ada and Souleiman are reunited and love returns from the literal ocean depths, the shots of the sky become less foreboding and increasingly warm. By the end of the film, the waves aren’t dark blue but a glorious turquoise; the sun is a peach tone instead of a violent scarlet or somber blue. It is as though the once-mortal characters have been fused with nature and are now not only being controlled by it, but are also its controllers.
Antiestablishmentarianism is also a theme within the film. The establishment, the film says, is fundamentally corrupt no matter how pure it tries to be. Without spoiling one of the best revelations of the film, just know that when one is possessed by dead spirits, it’s hard for that person to be on only one side. The enemy and the hero become one and the same, and neither is sinful nor pure.
The film further pokes fun at the established conventions regarding dating and marriage. Souleiman and Ada know each other for only about a month’s time, and they never have sex. Their bond is nothing in the eyes of the law (under which Ada was married to Omar), nor is it serious from any adult perspective since all she and Souleiman do aside from kissing each other a bit is “just talk.” Yet that bond is stronger than the vows upheld by the establishment, vows that Omar and Ada recite at their wedding, saying “‘til death do us part.” Souleiman, not supported by social convention or marital tradition, does not allow even death to part him and Ada. All the ornamentations, marriage festivities, and traditional beliefs regarding marriage as the most sacred aspect of romance are cast out to sea in the film.
But don’t worry — for as much as it deals with romance, it’s not just a “romance film.” I’ll be the first to admit that when my friend sent me the synopsis, I was a bit nervous. Wikipedia calls this film a “romance,” and I hate romance as a genre. Love should never be a plot device. Fortuantely, in “Atlantique”, there isn’t a lot of kissing, sex scenes, or even a Bechdel-test-failing amount of references to the men in the female characters’ lives. Romance is a part of the plot, but the supernatural aspect — possessions, restless souls, immortal beings that control the elements — really takes the forefront in the film. Yes, it’s a romance film, but it’s also a film where badass spirits take over other beings’ bodies and fix the ills in the societies they leave behind in some pretty poetic ways. There’s a lot of burning things down, and yes, those scenes are “fire.”
In case the general public has been snoozing on non-Western film, the African film scene is thriving, and one only need to look at the stunning cinematography to see the brilliance of Diop — a first-time director — and her vision. The film is stunningly vibrant, especially, and ironically, in darkness. The scenes of the club at night go from being hypnotic shots of girls in kaleidoscopic neon pink and yellow dresses to intimate scenes of lonely women with blue-hued skin from the UV party lights. The green fluorescent lights are the only constant in both the bustling party and the somber aftermath, and Diop plays with audience’s emotions using objects common in both scenes. When the party stops and the village boys are gone, the club becomes an above-water Atlantic ocean — the green strobe lights turn into bioluminescent noctiluca; the violet party lights become the choked sun attempting to make its way on the figures’ bodies; the young women stop dancing and either leave or sit still like dead men on the seafloor. It’s no wonder that the mirrors in the club become portals through which those on the other side of the Atlantic are able to interact with the girls they leave behind….
The club scenes in particular have brilliant cinematography, but other scenes that stand out for camera chiaroscuro are the wedding scene between Ada and the man she was given to by arranged marriage, Omar (Babacar Sylla). The wedding scene showcased sound more than anything, with loud horns further adding to the already-disorienting chanting and clapping of townswomen and the flashes of the paparazzi's cameras. It’s delightfully discombobulating, and it would not have been so without the sound mixing.
In fact, in this scene as well as many others, music is at the forefront of the mood portrayed on screen. It was quite refreshing for me, a cellist and singer, to have a film that employed music and auditory stimuli to the full (especially since the last two films I’d seen, brilliant as they were, treated music as the ugly stepsister to flashy cinematography or scripts with weighty topics). The music — a rich blend of strings, horns, synths, traditional West African percussion instruments (djembe drum!), electric bass, and guitar — always melds perfectly with the scenery. The synths add moody elements to transition scenes that aren’t as foreboding as the classic “drone of dread” but alert the audience of unrest; the picked guitar music offers auditorily intriguing pentatonic scales that plunge viewers into the bustle of the Dakar cityscape. In a powerful scene in the film’s dénouement, the percussion instruments unite with the clamor of car horns and bumpy roads so much so that it’s difficult to separate them as not belonging to the same rhythmic, percussive melody.
If the above reasons don’t implore you to watch this film when it goes up on Netflix on Nov. 15 (you can click here and ask Netflix to remind you when it’s up for viewing!), here are a few more: The film is (mostly) in Wolof, a Niger-Congo language with heavy vocabulary influence from French and Arabic, which meant the inner linguist in me spent more time jotting down notes on interesting bits of Wolof than notes for this review. Secondly, the problem that prompts Souleiman and his friends to leave — receiving little-to-no pay from his boss — is one that becomes ever-more important in light of the Belt and Road Initiative. Souleiman works for a building company with a stingy, corrupt boss at the head who doesn’t give his workers fair pay. China is funding the construction of more and more buildings; infrastructure will be rapidly increasing in the next few years in many African nations thanks to Chinese loans. Whether or not businessmen who have dealings with China will be like Mr. Ndiaye, and whether or not this rapid rate of development will prove sustainable in the long run, is not just a plot point in a really well-produced and beautiful film. It’s real-life political commentary.
Here in the U.S., news stations are inundated with tragic stories of the migrant crisis at the southern border, but rarely do we consider the migrant crisis affecting the people of North and West Africa, Turkey and the Middle East — people who try with all their might to escape violence and corruption by traveling across seas to European coasts. Occasionally, we in the U.S. hear stories of capsized boats that end in the deaths of dozens, but rarely do we contemplate — or even are familiar with — the communities affected. Without having to force facts down our throats, the film’s simple dialogue and touching scenes show how countries are affected by this modern crisis. The film simply shows that the boys are gone from the club. Girls, although partially possessed, are the ones who run things. But male spirits aren’t the same as male working bodies, and the problem of an age and gender imbalance cannot be put out of viewers’ heads. What happens to the strength of a society when all the young men are gone? Are parts of the world experiencing their own “Lost Generations” that the West largely hasn’t seen since WWI? And if yes, then how can we as an international community stop these tragedies?
“Atlantique” brings to light these horrid losses of life in ways that the average American will never get. It’s a catalyst to send us down into the depths of Wikipedia to learn about an area of the world generally ignored by the American audience. It’s the starting point to begin pondering tough questions regarding the migrant crisis of Africa and the Middle East. And it’s a mirror into our own households. These problems facing the characters are nothing unrecognizable to us. It’s the same ocean — the Atlantic — that washes up on the ports of New York and Boston that ends up forever changing the lives of these characters, after all. These problems are not as far away from home as we believe.