After screening at sixteen film festivals throughout 2019, French writer/director Mati Diop’s alluring debut finally arrives on general release in UK cinemas and on Netflix this month. Atlantics is a pensive, beguiling and magical socio-fantasy that follows teen construction worker Soulieman Fall (Ibrahima Traore), who, after an altercation with his manager, sets off to Spain on a row boat with work friends. Meanwhile, Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), his unrequited love, fears for Soulieman’s safety and that he won’t return in time to prevent her arranged marriage to the wealthy but vacuous Omar (Babacar Sylla). A week later and with no sign of Soulieman, Ada’s wedding to Omar goes ahead, but when a fire mysteriously breaks out on their matrimonial bed, Ada believes Soulieman might still be alive.
Mati Diop’s debut feature captivates from the outset with arresting imagery and abrupt conflict which engrosses and then whisks viewers into its wistful (un)reality. From the dusty, sun-kissed and saturated opening on a Senegal construction site, Atlantics sifts into a touching love tale. The Dakar locale and corporeal feel meld impeccably to make it feel almost hallucinatory, while earthy realism and grounded drama augments Atlantics’ potency. Flickering dots of green neon glide and swish across a navy basked beach bar, making a scene featuring Ada and her teenage girlfriends resonate like a distorted memory during the morning after the night before. Fantasy aspects are also heightened by enchanting shots of the ocean from the shore at various times of day, lashing grey, twilight blues to taupe sunsets and glistening palace-like edifices, shrouded by clouds or part hidden by fog for a fairy-tale air.
Diop’s film is also enriched by a captivating realism due to her direction and spectacular performances. The drama is deployed to engross over governing the plot stride or tone, which makes Atlantics more intriguing and mysterious than mechanically fascinating. Delicate tension seethes through Ada’s concerns for Soulieman and marrying someone she doesn’t love. Soulieman’s mother’s anguish is secondary, as the focus turns to the wedding, bed burning and police investigation. It’s at this point where Atlantics disconnects and slacks during flat interrogations as a detective investigates what viewers already know, leaving elongated police scenes missing mystery and superfluous, but the pace soon quickens during potentially supernatural incidents.
Soulieman and Ada’s love is imparted impeccably with restraint, care and artistry. Their love lost gazes into each other’s eyes conveys more about their feelings for each other than dialogue could ever do. Despite sometimes sauntering at a steady pace, without feeling listless, but with a latter act sag that hamper the second half, Atlantics flits through styles like a Bowie/ Gonzales (Speedy) fusion in a rocket pack/ fashion rack crash/ smash and grab at a Narnia sample sale. Socio-realist drama to tender teen romance, supernatural mystery, police investigation and possession horror are whipped with the vigour, hue and structure of a director in their prime. Diop mends magic and realism with a dab hand winningly making her sublime, dreamy debut unique and frequently stunning.