Young lovers are separated in this wistful, atmospheric first feature from Mati Diop, the first black female director to compete for the Cannes Palme d’Or. Soon after we meet spirited teenager Ada (Mame Bineta Sané) in Dakar, she is grinning at Souleiman (Ibrahima Traore) across the road as traffic whizzes past, his solemn, lovelorn face holding secrets she doesn’t yet know. Soon there will be an ocean between them, and she will be left to wonder if he is alive or dead, while marrying a wealthy man she doesn’t love. There’s something Shakespearean about her predicament – perhaps it’s no coincidence that there are echoes of the fish tank scene in Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Romeo + Juliet’, showing smitten teens whose eyes meet across a divide that will only get bigger.
But ‘Atlantique’ is more than a tragic love story: Diop weaves in many genres, from social commentary to supernatural drama. This film’s power to surprise is one of its greatest pleasures, while also the source of its frustrations: don’t come here looking for easy answers.
Diop, who is also an actress, elicits terrific performances from her young cast of newcomers, and she sets a scene vividly, guiding us into Senegalese life through Ada’s daily actions, which range from the mundane to the life-changing. Her loveless wedding to Omar (Babacar Sylla) not only gives insight into local rituals, but it highlights the limited choices for a young woman of modest means. This man with a flashy house and car is presented as the best option for Ada, but she wants more – as do the desperate, unpaid workers who attempt to flee to Spain on a boat. ‘Atlantique’ highlights the risks and uncertainties of attempted migration by focusing on the women left behind, their bond strengthening as they sit silently in a beach club at night, listening to the lapping of the waves that may have taken their men.
A police procedural subplot is less compelling, but the pay-off excuses this narrative contrivance. Diop tackles serious issues in the framework of a touching and romantic drama with intriguing sways into genre territory, leaving the viewer much like Ada: a little confused, but oddly bewitched.