Souleiman (Traore) works on a construction site where he and his fellow builders have not been paid for putting up a futuristic-looking new building for the past three months. They cannot go on like this anymore, and protest to their bosses, who hold up their hands and apologise, yet say there is nothing they can do about it because the project's cashflow has not trickled down to be able to supply the builders with the salaries they need. Souleiman and the rest have had enough, but before they take drastic action, he goes to see his girlfriend Ada (Mame Binata Sane) for a bit of alone time, especially because she is betrothed to the wealthy and cold Omar (Babacar Sylla).
Atlantique was notable for its director, first and foremost, since she was a black woman in an age where such a thing was a rarity, though still more common than it used to be; not by a tremendous amount, mind you. She was Mati Diop and won a prize at Cannes for her efforts here, a story set in her Senegalese musician father's place of origin, though she was technically French, but with the immigration from Africa having been in the news for some years by the point this was released, she managed to create something timely but timeless. This was thanks to a subject torn from the headlines, and in the second half, the supernatural element, not a horror movie, a fantasy.
It could have been a horror yarn, very easily with a few tweaks, but that was not where Diop's heart lay, she was more intrigued by the possibilities that an otherworldly aspect could be applied to hold some very unscrupulous people to account. Really this was a tale of what happens back home after economic migration, a hot topic in both Africa and Europe were many, many people, often young men, were leaving their lands in the hope of making a better life for themselves in Northern climes, a belief that did not translate to the realisation of those dreams as much as they would like, and in many cases led to increased hardship and tragically, even death, as happens in the narrative here.
There was a telling scene early on where the girlfriends left behind by Souleiman and his colleagues sit in desultory mood in the local bar in Dakar, pondering their next move now their men have abandoned them; it was a poignant bit in a film that was often harder-edged than that. Surely Ada has nothing to worry about, as Omar shows no signs of going anywhere since he has his fortune sewn up? But she is painfully aware that he is only interested in her because of her beauty, and simply wanted a trophy wife rather than someone who was truly in love with him. Ada's family and friends think she is mad for carrying a torch for Souleiman, but the heart wants what it wants, and she has no affection for Omar, exhibited in her monotone when she is encouraged to discuss him, and the way her interest brightens for her actual boyfriend.
Did Diop blame the migrants for actions that could be regarded as needlessly foolhardy and potentially suicidal? They were not quite let off the hook in that respect, but more than that, the finger of blame was pointed at the men who have effectively forced these people from their homeland by refusing to pay them a decent wage, or indeed any wages at all. Economic was the key word here, the rich were getting ever richer purely because they were not spreading their wealth around: that tower being built is for them, not those living in conditions one step up from a slum who have to work for them. So there was a political message here, but while hard to miss, it was not a case of being beaten over the head with it, you could still enjoy Atlantique as a novel drama with paranormal trappings as the girls left behind begin to show strange aftereffects of losing their partners, leading to a reckoning. If it was a little unfocused, not to mention difficult to apply its solution to reality, it remained impressive. Music by Fatima Al Qadiri.