Biweekly Binge: Atlantics - The young woman and the sea
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week it's Atlantics, streaming on Netflix
Words mean little to Mati Diop. Her debut feature, Atlantics (French title Atlantique), is that veritable mood piece that uses images and manipulates frames to convey what words can only dream of. Grand Prix winner at Cannes this year and a fictitious extension of Diop's own documentary short Atlantiques, it tells the story of Ada (Mame Bineta) and her lover Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), based in Dakar, Senegal where dust, smog, storm, the sun, and the ocean intermingle to alter life and atmosphere around the story's principal characters.
Souleiman and his friends work at the construction site of an expensive, modern-looking tower that sits in the middle of nowhere, a symbol of the gentrification of the region, and they have not been paid for more than three months by the powers that be, those with political and bureaucratic clout. The tower looks out at the titular Atlantic Ocean, like a lighthouse with a single shining beacon at the top, the same ocean that Souleiman and friends decide to cross, to emigrate to Spain in search of a better life.
The ocean in Atlantics takes different forms and colours. It is azure and pristine when Ada and Souleiman spend a few stolen minutes at the end of Souleiman's workday. It is pale grey and ferocious when Souleiman is returning from work and protest, Diop switching back and forth between the waters and his shattered, contemplative face. Later that evening, when he parts ways with Ada, there is a shot of the ocean that's black and terrifying, the water is still and disinviting, portending oncoming dread with all that monochrome. Or it could also be reflective of the past, migrants challenging the mysteries of the sea in an attempt to improve their fortunes.
Ada is betrothed to a wealthy man, Omar, whose act of love is limited to buying her an iPhone. People like Souleiman must brave the ocean to get away from a crumbling city while Omar can afford to limit himself to the illusion of having conquered the ocean. He owns an infinity pool overlooking it.
The beach outside Ada's home is hit by a storm just before her wedding to Omar when everything changes. Souleiman is spotted by Mariama. Fantastical events wreak havoc in Dakar, turning Ada's life upside down. Atlantics uses quick cuts from scenes filled with quietness to intense events, mirroring what Ada is going through, torn between her unpredictable future and Souleiman's disappearance. The atmosphere at Ada's friend, Dior's seaside club is always funereal despite the upbeat music that's always at play. The film even teases its transformation to the supernatural by way of playing with the laser lights on the dance floor, that strike Ada in obtuse angles.
But the ocean — water — is not the only element at work in Atlantics. Mati Diop calls into service all the four elements to paint the ambiance of Dakar in those fateful weeks. The film begins in the outskirts where Souleiman and friends are working at the tower site, the land (earth) is close to the sea, but the earth is desert-like, yellow and parched, almost dying of thirst. Just like the labourers who haven't been paid for months. They beseech the guards for their compensation, saying that they go home after dark to avoid the loan sharks to whom they owe money.
Atlantics cuts between the land and ocean with the quickness of a cheetah (aided by Fatima Al Qadiri's score, similarly switching between haunting and disorienting), the smog (air) and dust not only signifying the turbulent life of Ada, Souleiman, and his friends, but also the discernible difference between the atmosphere in their neighbourhood and the upper class one, belonging to people like Omar and the tower's wealthy owner.
Fire makes its appearance in person, mysteriously destroying Omar and Ada's wedding bed on the very night. It then morphs into something abstract, like the film itself, when heat defines the entire third act of Atlantics. The sun overlooks the city, and promptly disappears under the sea after introducing a hypnagogic apparition into town. Detective Issa Diop (Amadou Mbow) who is investigating the arson sweats profusely due to a mysterious illness and the sun is always striking down upon him, Diop shifting the lens flare into fifth gear, and in one beautiful shot, Issa's perspiring face forms a penumbra against the sun.
There is the fifth unseen element too. The void. That's when Atlantics takes a metaphysical force, the spirits of the missing young men haunt the women of Dakar, who take it upon themselves to seek justice for their wronged, in the form of a fever dream. Bong Joon-ho's Parasite might be everyone's favourite class war film but Atlantics is as much about the ever-expanding fracture in today’s developing society as any other film. It is one of the most expressionistic works of the year, with Mati Diop focusing on mood and frames, sound and angles, to illustrate the state of people in a land that's exploited with an already broken promise of prosperity. And so, you find people at sea.