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Just Your Basic Love Ghost Story: How Claire Mathon Captured the Visuals of “Atlantics”

The “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” cinematographer delivers a dreamy yet vibrant, color-saturated look for Mati Diop’s debut feature.

Marking French-Senegalese filmmaker Mati Diop’s feature debut, the supernatural romantic drama Atlantics swept audiences at its premiere at the 2019 Cannes film festival, where it was awarded the Grand Prix and secured a global distribution deal with streaming giant Netflix. The film was submitted as Senegal’s entry into the 2020 international Oscar race, landing a spot on the Academy shortlist in December.

“The film’s Cannes premiere earned Diop, niece of the late, great Senegalese cinema pioneer Djibril Diop Mambéty, a spot in the history books,” writes Tambay Obenson for IndieWire, “she became the first woman of African descent with a film in the 72-year-old festival’s Competition section, and has proven to be one of the biggest breakouts at Cannes this year.”

Part love story, part ghost story, Atlantics throws the world’s ongoing migrant crisis into stark relief. The film was shot by Claire Mathon, the acclaimed cinematographer behind the rapturous visuals captured for Céline Sciamma’s period drama, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It is set in a suburb of Dakar that lies along the Atlantic coast, where a soon-to-be-inaugurated futuristic-looking tower — created using computer generated imagery — looms over the landscape. Yet construction workers haven’t been paid for months and, one night, the workers decide to leave the country by sea, in search of a brighter future in Spain. Among them is Ada’s lover, Souleiman. But Ada is betrothed to another man — the wealthy Omar. Deeply worried about Souleiman, Ada waits for news of his fate in the time leading up to her wedding. On the fateful day, Omar’s bed mysteriously catches fire in a suspected arson attack, and a young detective is assigned to investigate the case.

Amadou Mbow in "Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story" Courtesy of Netflix.
Amadou Mbow in “Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story” Courtesy of Netflix.

Film critic Richard Brody, in his review for the New Yorker, notes that Diop “films the characters and the city with a tactile intimacy and a teeming energy that are heightened by the soundtrack’s polyphony of voices and music; she dramatizes the personal experience of public matters — religious tradition, women’s autonomy, migration, corruption — with documentary-based fervor, rhapsodic yearning, and bold affirmation.”

Mama Sané (left) and Ibrahima Traoré in "Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story" Courtesy of Netflix.
Mama Sané (left) and Ibrahima Traoré in “Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story” Courtesy of Netflix.

In his review for Vanity Fair, film critic K. Austin Collins writes, “The film looks and feels beautiful: vibrant but with a subtly foggy, Atlantic-born sense of remove, a credit owed in part to cinematographer Claire Mathon, who also shot Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, though her work for Diop is even more impressive for having to settle into a style that makes so many weird elements plausible.”

Read more: A Paean To the Female Gaze: The Stunning Visuals for Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Read more: Follow the Light, Follow the Mood: Making Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life

“I chose Claire Mathon because I knew that she would know how to apply a documentary approach (to shoot quickly, catch things on the fly, spontaneously invent things) without losing any aesthetic ambition,” Diop relates. “I wanted to make a stylized film but one that would remain very embodied. I think that Claire was the right person to understand this balance. We got to know one another before we got started. I really like her way of first questioning the depths of things before turning her attention to our images. Who are we looking at? What are we saying? Being careful never to be above the subject.”

In an interview with Emily Buder for No Film School, Diop insists she didn’t choose to work with Mathon just to create beautiful imagery. “I feel I know enough about what I want and how to make an image happen,” she underscores. “For me, in hiring a DP, it’s more about their relationship with the story and with the place. That translates into how they want to shoot it. And Claire cares more about understanding the story than making a beautiful image.”

Writing for Movable Feast, Stephen Saito notes that “Although Diop has a remarkable feel for what’s in front of her camera, it’s what’s not there that looms larger and larger throughout Atlantics, as any aspirations of having a different life than their parents are easily crushed under the weight of adhering to tradition and socioeconomic realities that were established well before the current generation ever had a chance,” adding:

“The constant stirring of the ocean, the neon lights that pierce the Dakar’s skyline and the pomp and circumstance that surrounds the impending nuptials all give the sense of a pulse, but the soul escapes once Ada and Souleymane part ways, a notion that the filmmaker pushes in intriguing ways in the drama that takes on supernatural overtones as it develops, leaving both Ada and Issa (Amadou Mbow), a detective assigned to investigate a fire that breaks out during her wedding, to chase ghosts of different kinds.”

Searn Burns, in his review for The ARTery, notes that early on in the film “one can already sense something dreamy about the camera’s tendency to drift away to long, lingering shots Diop and cinematographer Claire Mathon lavish upon the North Atlantic, with waves undulating in time to a hypnotic synth score by Future Brown’s Fatima Al Qadiri.” When Souleiman’s boat is swallowed by the sea, Burns writes that the tragedy is conveyed “via heartbreakingly evocative shots of all the girlfriends now sitting alone in a beachfront nightclub, their grief illuminated by the glow of green disco lasers and pale cellphone screens.”

In his review for Variety, Jay Weissberg calls Atlantics “part social commentary, part ghost tale,” noting that “The capricious ocean is a recurrent, mesmerizing image in Mati Diop’s feature debut… but given its perfidious connotations for the people of Senegal, who’ve lost so many souls to its depths, the director ensures the rolling waves remain hypnotic rather than beautiful. It’s the right decision for this romantic and melancholy film, more apt than some of the flawed narrative choices that frustrate though don’t compromise the atmosphere of loss and female solidarity in the story of a young woman whose love has died at sea.”

Atlantics lovingly captures dusty construction sites and fleeting night shots in a city Diop describes as “creative and beautiful” in an interview with Jazz Tangcay for Variety:

“When it came to the visual identity of the film, Diop says that it was firmly rooted and built in her previous films. Claire Mathon served as the film’s cinematographer. ‘I spoke to her about Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work because I liked the mood of his films. He’s really into stories rooted in naturalism,’ says Diop. She adds that she discussed ideas about lighting the inside of the club and recommended Michael Mann. ‘His night filmmaking in films like Collateral and Miami Vice were inspirations.’”

Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story - Image Courtesy of Netflix
Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story – Image Courtesy of Netflix

Speaking with François Reumont in an interview for the AFC, the French Society of Cinematographers, Mathon says, “The first screen tests took place in Paris to choose the camera and begin making choices about lighting and color,” adding:

“The green laser, which became an important motif in the nightclub scenes, was present during these initial tests. We decided to use two cameras for this film, a daytime and a night-time camera. The dynamics of the RED Epic in daylight give a dreamy quality to the images captured in a sometimes-documentary style, and sublimates the locations drenched in sunlight, and situations that are often very contrasted. We really liked the subtle rendering of the sandy heat that characterizes Dakar. At night-time, the high sensitivity of the VariCam 35 allowed us to film light and free in areas of Dakar that are practically entirely plunged in darkness. We often called them clairvoyant nights. Atlantics is a film of ghosts, and the VariCam 35, whose texture we also liked, provided us with a particular acuity and the possibility of making a land and faces that are seldom filmed visible. This camera seemed made for this film!”

Almost the entire cast for Atlantics was found in Senegal and Diop and her casting director scouted various neighborhoods for locals, but it took a long time to find the right girl to play Ada, the director told Gregory Ellwood in an interview for the Los Angeles Times. “We were about to delay [production], because I needed at least two to three months before the shooting to work with her,” Diop recounted to Ellwood. “One day I was scouting with my set designer and I saw a girl coming out of her house. I had an intuition that she had something. So we went back to talk to her.” Mame Bineta Sane had no acting experience and didn’t attend school, and Diop had to carefully consider if the 19-year-old girl was  capable of returning to her previous life following production. “You don’t just take people and then leave them, you know,” she said.

Calling it one of the best films of the year, Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr writes that “Atlantics is rich with visual and aural poetry: Claire Mathon’s color-saturated photography… [and] the wide, wide Atlantic that feels seen or heard in every shot and that watches the characters with majestic impassiveness.” Lawrence Garcia, writing for the AV Club, calls Atlantics “a richly imagined ghost story,” adding, “Working with cinematographer Claire Mathon… Diop alternates between feverish, sun-soaked frames and suggestive low-light images.”

In his review for Film Comment, Dennis Lim notes that “For all the fantastical flourishes, Diop and her excellent cinematographer Claire Mathon (who also shot Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake and Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire) retain a documentary specificity in their depiction of contemporary Dakar. The heat, dust, and clamor of the city, palpable in A Thousand Suns, is even more pronounced in Atlantics, which finds much texture and life in its variegated settings: abandoned buildings, beach clubs, brand-new constructions, modest teenage bedrooms.”

David Fear, in his review for Rolling Stone, calls Atlantics “a major work that ingeniously filters its humanism through an imaginative borrowing of elements without diluting it,” urging readers to “Just watch this movie. This is what cinema looks like.” He concludes:

“A mood, a metaphor, a romantic parable, a character study, an indictment of capitalism as the new colonialism (though when haven’t these two things been intertwined?) — Diop distills from this steeped brew a singular take on a sorority of young women butting up against the constraints of their society. Her sense of visual storytelling is breathtaking; the way she and cinematographer Claire Mathon use colors, from the green glow of a dancefloor to a tiny patch of red shirt peeking out from a black sweater, to channel atmospherics and emotional states is peerless. Nothing — not a lingering shot, not a cut, and certainly not a gesture or word from Sane, who shoulders the bulk of the narrative with extraordinary grace — feels false or out of place.”

Looking for more on Atlantics?

Read more: Director Mati Diop Discusses Her Artisan Vision for Atlantics (Variety)

Read more: Claire Mathon, AFC, discusses her work on Mati Diop’s film Atlantics (AFC)

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