Director: Mati Diop
Time: 1 hour and 46 minutes
What It Evokes: Ghost tales, evocative political ruminations, coming of age
Where Can I Get It: Netflix (free w/subscription)
Horror and fantasy, some of the “genres” of “genre film,” facilitate political and social commentary through their ability to abstract from mundane concerns to first principles. To use the language of the academics, they “de-naturalize” circumstances in ways conducive to analysis, utilizing the format of fables to narrow focus once the terms of the alternate universe have been established. For instance, it’s not difficult to make a movie about the organizing principles of a society when zombies force the creation of a new social arrangement. Welcome to the world of bizzaro-John Rawls thought experiments. At the same time, a problem emerges: thought experiments (or evidently constructed dilemmas) tend to be neither elegant nor evocative vehicles for emotional attachment or rounded protagonists. Too much time spent establishing the rules of a universe takes away time from building character. How to avoid the constraints of genre while taking advantage of their benefits? One roundabout way might be to leverage the old T.S. Eliot insight, “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.” And, in many ways, Mati Diop’s film actualizes Eliot’s observation. Atlantics isn’t really a horror film or a fantasy film, it’s too explicitly invested in the pressures faced by contemporary Senegalese individuals and too interested in exploring those specific pressures’ ramifications to depart fully into genres which alienate from specifics in order to underscore the universal. Instead, the genre-bending (or, put differently, Eliot’s “stealing”) effectively overturns viewer expectations while offering structured templates facilitating focus, moving quickly from leaning on the tropes of romance (Ada, our main character, loves Souleiman but has agreed to marry rich Omar) to horror and the detective procedural.
The film’s first thirty minutes encompass Ada’s lover, Souleiman, and a group of young construction workers, cheated of their wages, attempting to travel by boat to Spain and dying on the way. In turn, they possess their female counterparts (girlfriends or lovers) who haunt various figures or search for reconciliation with those left behind in their Dakar suburb. The elegance of the possession scenes remains difficult to describe. Genre confines insinuate their own over-the-top interpretations which this film eschews. At its simplest, the conceit underscores how the presence of the departed continues in the lives of those left behind. Yet, much like the Brazilian film Bacurau (2019), Diop uses genre expectations without feeling the need to assume their full weight, exploring questions of gender, migration, and self-actualization in the process. Two images predominate throughout: the sea and the collective. In extended shots, the sea remains a continual referent to aspiration, possibility, and fear. As ever, its magnitude underlines the limitations of individual power and will. In so doing, it honors the fortitude and bravery of those who venture across it, in search of a better life and at great danger to themselves. At the same time, collectives of either men (the laborers lost at sea) or women (their counterparts) function as a Greek chorus, offering both ethical commentary on events and undergirding the collective nature (and impact) of the circumstances which force the forms of loss so central to the film.
Go Down The Rabbit Hole With:
Djibril Diop Mambéty — Touki Bouki (1973)
Céline Sciamma — Bande Des Filles (2014)