French actor-writer-director Mati Diop returns to Cannes with the first feature competition entry ever directed by a black woman.
In combining seductive sensuality, sophisticated genre play, and unflinching topicality, Mati Diop has crafted not only one of the best films of the festival, but one of the most sunning feature debuts in years. Diop gained international recognition through her acting, with her most notable work being the central role in Claire Denis’ stunning Late Spring riff 35 Shots of Rum, and the Denis influence is all over Atlantics, a hallucinatory coming-of-age story which begins as a sensuous coming-of-age story and gradually becomes something more abstract and difficult to define.
The central figure is Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a timid orphan who faces the choice which awaits all young people living on the Senegalese border once they reach the cusp of adulthood: whether to remain living in near poverty, or to risk the voyage to Spain in the hopes of securing lucrative work — with the knowledge that a large number of those who attempt the second option die at sea. Initially, Ada opts for the safe route, accepting the marriage proposal of the wealthy but distant Omar for the sake of self-preservation, all the while secretly engaging in a flirtation with Souleiman, a poor construction worker. Souleiman, however, hasn’t received his wages in months; unable to make ends meet, he and his co-workers make the impulsive decision to cross the border.
Ada later hears the news that Souleiman and his crew drowned during the journey, but strange, otherworldly occurrences soon convince her that he has returned. She is correct (in a sense) as his ghost and those of the others who perished in the process of escaping inhospitable working conditions have come to wreak revenge on their professional oppressors, taking physical form by possessing the living. In outline, this may sound like the basis for sensationalist horror, but Diop doesn’t opt for traditional scares, instead sustaining an atmosphere for understated unease. The film’s use of supernatural elements is a lens through which to explore the contemporary refugee crisis and the nature of exploitative labour. In that sense, Atlantics is reminiscent of the complex genre allegories of the great Jacques Tourner (the very design of the possessed bodies, with their slow, stilted gait and bulging eyes, seems a deliberate tip-of-the-hat to I Walked With a Zombie).
Initially presented as a threat to be feared, the spirits of the labourers become heroes once their intentions are made clear, and Diop joins forces with the deceased Souleiman — who inhabits the body of a local detective — to take down the corrupt foreman whose neglect of his workers lead to their untimely demise. This sophisticated, nuanced dynamic of shifting power relations and audience identification points elevates Atlantics above simplistic revenge-of-the-oppressed horror such as Jordan Peele’s Us, and speaks volumes about Diop’s skill as a manipulator of tone and narrative construction.
Diop also demonstrates a masterful control of visual storytelling, expressing Ada’s complicated emotional states through colour, composition, and associate cutting. Told in the tenor of tender lyricism, Atlantics is subtle and sensitive while never seeing inert, and it handles its gradual slide into genre territory with ease, making each fantastical development feel effortless. The wonderful electronic score from conceptual musician Fatima Al Qadiri — which mixes computerized beats with African inflections — is integral to modulating the rhythm of Diop’s undulating stream of evocative images. A supremely talented short filmmaker making the leap to feature-length storytelling for the first time, Diop crafts an immersive vision of a marginal community haunted by the spirits of those forced to flee, informed by an aura of sustained melancholy and understated outrage at the conditions enforced upon the poor. The imagery of the sea is loaded with the possibility of escape, yet also the potential for a horrible death.
- James Slaymaker