A highly praised film that has a character all its own.


Mama Sané


The actress Mati Diop, best known to us for her role in the Claire Denis film 35 Shots of Rum (2008), now moves into fresh territory since Atlantics marks her first feature as director and as co-writer too. It has met with huge acclaim and amongst other prizes in 2019 it gained the Cannes Grand Prix and the London Film Festival’s Sutherland Trophy. I have to admit, though, to being somewhat taken aback by this response despite recognising that the film is very much in tune with current approved concerns (it is a work created by a female which puts women at its centre while also being set in Dakar and thus quite appropriately having a central ethnic element). None of that is a bad thing, of course, and Atlantics is not a bad film, but I feel that it fails to register as effectively as it should due to the fact that it lacks the necessary resonance.


The intention here is to create a piece that works in two registers. On the one hand, it is almost neo-realist in tone as it shows us the lives of the working classes, people like Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), a construction worker who has been unpaid for months by an uncaring boss and who decides along with others to take his chance for a better life by finding a boat to cross to Spain. He does this despite having a girlfriend, Ada (Mama Sané), who is so serious about him that she is having second thoughts about marrying Omar (Babacar Sylla) whose wealthy background could give her the kind of security envied by girls like Mariama (Mariama Gassama) and Fanta (Aminata Kane) who are her best friends.


Interwoven with this realistic view of people all too aware of their limited opportunities in life, the film offers images that are poetic in character and which provide their own symbolic comment. Even more frequent than shots of the moon looking down are images of the sea evoking the lure of the horizon but suggestive of dangers as well as hopes. Certain aspects of Atlantics were present back in 2002 in the admirable Waiting for Happiness which offered a comparable view of a place (that one in Mauritania) which saw people eager to leave in search of a better existence abroad. But Diop develops the non-naturalistic side of her story into a work that goes far beyond just being poetic. A storm at sea may have killed Souleiman but Ada is convinced by talk that he is still alive and has returned. Meanwhile two fires seem to start of their own accord, people start to fall ill and a number of unpaid female workers appear to have become possessed and zombie-like as they seek retribution. Local beliefs in spirits might justify some of this while, at the other extreme, the tale might have turned into an all-out horror movie, albeit one with something serious to say. But, as it is, Atlantics seems content to remain a vacuum in which its conflicting elements co-exist without the mixture ever becoming truly meaningful. The film is clearly well intentioned and unusual, but for me it never resonates in the way that Waiting for Happiness did, and it lacks too that film’s emotional force. 


Original title: Atlantique.




Cast: Mama Sané, Amadou Mbow, Ibrahima Traoré, Nicole Sougou, Aminata Kane, Mariama Gassama, Coumba Dieng, Ibrahima Mbaye, Diankou Sembene, Babacar Sylla, Abdou Balde.


Dir Mati Diop, Pro Judith Lou Lévy and Eve Robin, Screenplay Mati Diop and Olivier Demangel, Ph Claire Mathon, Art Dir Toma Baqueni and Oumar Sall, Ed Aël Dallier Vega, Music Fatima Al Qadiri, Costumes Rachèle Raoult and Salimata Ndiaye.


Les Films du Bal/Cinekap/Frakas Productions/Arte France Cinéma/Canal+ International-Netflix.
106 mins. France/Senegal/Ivory Coast/Belgium. 2019. Rel: 29 November 2019. Cert. 12A.