Eternal Return
by Nick Pinkerton

NYFF 2019:
Atlantics
Dir. Mati Diop, France/Senegal, Netflix

On a coastal building site in a suburb of Dakar, Senegal, a great curtain of glass and steel rises, a luxury high-rise, conspicuously out of context, alien and monolithic. Its forbidding image opens and looms over Atlantics—the image of luxe ultramodern verticality overlooking the horizontal cityscape, evoking more the planning of a skyscraper in Jean Rouch’s slyly sinister satire Little by Little (1969) than the Afrofuturist affirmation of the Wakanda skyline. Atlantics director Mati Diop created the image of the tower based on an aborted project initiated by former Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade and Muammar Gaddafi, a building that was to be the tallest in Africa, and shot the worksite in the pre-planned city of Diamniadio, under construction outside of Dakar. It appears sometimes like a beacon, sometimes like a weapon.

Great edifices can be erected in the Dakar of Atlantics, but for the rank and file these ambitious projects make little difference in daily life. The work on the building is nearly done, but the workmen are agitated, on the brink of rebellion in the front office, where they plead for three months of undelivered back pay, only to be turned away with more excuses, excuses, excuses. Among these workers is Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), who seems to take the rejection harder than his co-workers; as they sing and joke in the back of the truck taking them to and from the site, he remains brooding, aloof. Souleiman has other things on his mind. He is, we learn, in love with Ada (Mama Sané), with whom he meets clandestinely—their encounters must remain a secret, for Ada is arranged to be married to the wealthy, arrogant Omar (Babacar Sylla), and though she truly loves Souleiman, she follows decorum in rebuffing his pleading attempts on her maidenhead, and he departs her with his desires unsatisfied.

Up to this point, Atlantics seems to be establishing Souleiman as our principal character, then takes a turn, handing the film to Ada, who, later that same night, sneaks out of her family home to meet Souleiman at a beachside bar. He misses the rendezvous, as do the boyfriends of the other young women assembled there. The men have, it is obtained, taken to sea, pointing the prow of a boat towards Spain in hopes of better prospects than those offered at home. They will be swallowed by the ocean, not to return—not, at least, in corporeal form.

Strange goings-on follow this mass disappearance. A freak fire mars Ada and Omar’s immaculate, blindingly white bedroom set on the eve of their wedding—it seems like an act of pyrokinesis by the recalcitrant Ada, but a witness claims to have seen the absent Souleiman on the scene. A curious phenomenon begins to affect the women that the would-be émigrés left behind, as by night they sink into a spell and, as though obeying unheard commands, take to the streets together, breaking en masse into the home of the unscrupulous developer (Diankou Sembene) who’d shafted their men on the construction site where, with sightless, unblinking, milky eyes, they demand delivery of the deferred payment. The various baton passes of the narrative—from Souleiman to Ada, and later between Ada and the detective, Issa (Amadou Mbow), assigned to the case of alleged wedding night arson—match the film’s tale of transference: in their rapt trance, the women are possessed by the souls of their absent men, departed and never to return.

There is an almost elemental enticement at play in these zombified outings which bring the women out from their beds, and Diop returns repeatedly to images of the ocean and of the setting sun which, along with the film’s title, convey a sense of tidal pull and lunar sway. Along with revenge, the forces of erotic and romantic attraction are seen imposing their invisible magnetism, on earth and from the undiscovered country beyond. The film’s surfeit of nocturnal scenes, its marked melancholy, and its introduction of horror-fantasy elements to plotlines revolving around very real class conflicts all suggest that Diop may have been thinking about the films of Val Lewton’s RKO B-horror unit, in particular those handled by Jacques Tourneur—also a key point of reference for Serge Bozon’s Mrs. Hyde, seen at 2017’s NYFF. Whatever the case, as in Lewton, the admixture of genre tropes and awareness of current events is here achieved organically, with none of the portentousness that has sunk efforts in the risibly labeled “social thriller” line.

In addition to such spiritual antecedents, Diop, here making her first feature, has more immediate cinematic forebears. She is the daughter of musician and composer Wasis Diop, and the niece of Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty, filmmaker of the pioneering Touki Bouki (1973), whose belated follow-up feature, 1992’s Hyenas, was scored by her father. It is perhaps to be expected then that she is particularly sensitive to the aural element of her film, and here has commissioned an eclectic, insinuating, expansive score courtesy of the Kuwaiti artist Fatima Al Qadiri, an amalgam of electro and analog elements, including Middle Eastern and African instrumentation, that at once recalls John Carpenter in its spartan lushness and resembles nothing else I can remember, creating oceanic and extraterrestrial soundscapes.

As in Hyenas, extravagantly costumed by designer Oumou Sy, Diop, working with Salimata Ndiaye and Rachel Raoult, extensively explores the pictorial and dramatic possibilities of Senegalese women’s wear—see for reference the riot of colors in the wedding party costumes. Elsewhere, the counterposing between tradition-minded, concealing garb and more revealing club clothes highlights Ada’s liminal position, teetering as she is between not only youth and adulthood, but also between the influence of two social groups, that of the conservatively inclined, hijab-wearing Mariama (Mariama Gassama), who urges her to tow the line and go through with her arranged marriage, and two employees of the beachfront bar, Fanta (Aminata Kane) and Dior (Nicole Sougou), who prefer to flaunt their feminine wiles and find their own men. In this community, however, scanty dress is very much associated with spiritual endangerment; one young woman recalls being inhabited by a spirit that “got into me through my belly button.” Neither the traditionalists nor the self-consciously modern girls, it should be mentioned, come in for ridicule or reproach; they are, simply, seen to speak convincingly for themselves, in their own words.

Diop is an accomplished actress as well as filmmaker—she is most recognizable from her large role in Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum (2008)—and whatever she has learned along the way allows her to do wonders with a cast of nonprofessionals recruited from around Senegal, many from backgrounds proximate to those of their characters: Traoré was plucked from a construction site; Sougou discovered behind the bar at a nightclub in Saly. Diop’s directorial work to date consists of a passel of artist videos and shorts, including 2009’s Atlantiques, which provides the kernel of her feature, and 2013’s 45-minute moyen métrage film Mille soleils, a kind of companion piece to Touki Bouki that follows the earlier film’s star, Magaye Niang, on the evening of an anniversary screening of his claim-to-fame work in Dakar.

Where Diop has in the past frequently employed low-grade video for a slightly offhand, homemade effect—the short Atlantiques was shot on mini-DV, while Mille soleils combines 35mm and scumbled, rough-and-ready digital—her feature is a high-finish affair, shot by Claire Mathon, who’d previously worked with Alain Guiraudie on Stranger by the Lake. Nocturnal photography, accomplished with a Panasonic VariCam 35, extracts uncannily well-articulated images from profoundly black night; while if the influence of Denis is to be found anywhere, it’s in Diop and Mathon’s favoring of extremely long lenses, resulting in a markedly shallow depth of field and an almost caressing quality to the slightest focus shifts. This new degree of polish notwithstanding, Diop retains a knack for creating lyric accents that seem to have been casually captured rather than sweated over: glowing smartphone screens and lasers casting particulate patterns in the beachfront bar; the soft billow of the curtain blowing into Ada’s room; or an atomic orange sunset, closely recalling a shot from Mille soleils.

It suggests an ancient tale told by fisherman’s wives—the sunken dead come home from the ocean’s bottom—but the haunting of Dakar in Atlantics extends beyond the film’s supernatural storyline, encompassing something more comprehensive and more unsettling in the strangeness of the 21st-century cityscape like that springing up over the suburbs, the tension between an imposed (and imposing) environment and humble human needs. Souleiman and Ada will have a final consummation, and the matter of unpaid debts will be addressed in a cemetery rendezvous between the possessed women and the corrupt developer, but there is little sense of justice being truly done. The high-rise, by night, seems almost sepulchral—the word was used by Conrad to describe colonial Brussels—as though it might be built of human bone.