Ghost stories in cinema are heavily undervalued. We have a slew of them, as spirits, out for revenge because reasons, haunt cinemas every few months thanks to the Conjuring Universe and its contemporaries. Everyone likes a good ghost story, even if meaningful ones are few and far between. David Lowery’s A Ghost Story from 2017 might have alienated the sensibilities of modern moviegoers, but it’s the type of movie involving spirits beyond our understanding that I would love to see more of. While nowhere close to the art house niche that Lowery’s near-masterpiece is, Atlantics is more akin to the ghost stories I like to hear than any Conjuring spinoff.
This is a film that has already made history. Mati Diop, star of Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum, is the first black female filmmaker to have their film debut at the Cannes Film Festival. That film is Atlantics, a romantic supernatural drama set in Dakar, a city in West Africa. A feature length reimagining of her 2009 short film, Atlantics follows several people throughout the city as a futuristic tower is being built over the normally small living spaces. Several young working men who have been refused pay for months all head out to sea in an attempt to find better work in Spain, only for the group to perish during their journey. Among them is Souleiman, the boyfriend of our protagonist, Ada. The film then follows three main plot threads: Ada’s arranged marriage to a rich man that she refuses to take part in, the tycoon who refused to pay his workers being haunted by possessed girls, and a detective in the middle trying to decipher the events. As the story ebbs and flows, we are given a portrait of death and memory told through the lens of those who have died and those who struggle to remember.
Much like The Burial of Kojo, a film set in Ghana that dealt with death through the supernatural, Atlantics begins as one sort of movie and ends as another, despite stylistic choices staying consistent throughout. I was not aware of the supernatural element going in, so one could easily imagine my surprise when the citizens of Dakar began suffering from possession. Things only pick up from there as Diop’s steady hand behind the camera keeps the movie grounded despite its fantastical edge. Ada gets a lot of focus in the first act, allowing us to see the events through her. She’s torn between two groups of friends and about to enter a marriage to a man she doesn’t love, all because Souleiman was wrongfully taken from her. She’s also present for the inciting incident of the supernatural happenings, allowing the audience to experience the mystery through her as well as the detective.
Speaking of the detective, his story is arguably the most compelling. He becomes the main audience proxy once the investigation kicks into high gear and spirits start stealing bodies. This is no horror film, but the sight of the possessed girls certainly gives a sinister feel. They shift from still and near mindlessness to charismatic taunting, and the way that they act like normal teens (no eccentric, strange voices or movement patterns, etc.) can be just as off-putting as any demon or ghoul of American cinema.
The film is also a splendor for the senses. Diop combines drop-dead gorgeous cinematography and score to create beautiful images. The sun setting behind the tower, a giant in comparison to the rest of Dakar. The slow-moving waves setting to the quiet music and narration from Ada. It gives a similar aesthetic to Kojo, and it’s the highlight of both of those films.
While Atlantics is a visually enthralling film with a really compelling narrative, sometimes the running time can definitely be felt. There isn’t much plot to be had, so the film can drag to get to its next plot beat from time to time. It’s never offensively boring in a way that some films can be, but it can feel like it’s wringing out every last drop of the story in mind when it could make the plot a little bit denser.
We’re nearing the end of the year and Netflix has been absolutely killing it, with even more on the way. They’ve proven beyond a shadow of a doubt their commitment, spoken or unspoken, to make their platform diverse and to push the voices of modern filmmakers without the resources or recognition to get their film out there by normal means. Atlantics is a ghost story I am willing to hear again and again.