Cannes, Movie Review

Atlantics (2019) by Mati Diop

Original Name: Atlantique

Director: Mati Diop

Debut at: May 2019 (104 min)

Country: Senegal (Senegalese)

IMDB Link: https://imdb.com/title/tt10199586/

Before Atlantiques premiered, all eyes on her debut feature lie far more interesting in the “landmark”: Atlantiques makes for the first ever black women entering the Palme d’Or (the fact that, the less said the better). Although Mati Diop is more well-known for her acting in 35 Shots of Rums, she has been an up-and-coming short director for years. Watching this movie, there’s a lot to praise for her first full-length efforts. Like Claire Denis, she already has a keen sense of visual storytelling. Atlantiques is poetic, dream-like, haunting and quietly profound. Inspired partly by her same titular short 10 years ago that focus on the people escaping to Europe through sea, this one instead focuses more on the woman that left behind. Souleiman (Ibrahima Traore) decides to cross the ocean because him, along with the workers, haven’t been paid for 3 months. On that last day, he meets his lover Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), who will marry another man in 10 days. She senses something devastating in him, but until that night does she finally find out that Souleiman has gone for good, leaving her heartbroken. It’s fairly straightforward now, but much later the story changes its shape into interesting angle.

And what a bold direction it heads into. The boat where Souleiman departed is reported to be sunk in the middle of the ocean, yet on Aya’s wedding, her friends claim that she meets him there before Aaa’s excessive wedding bed goes aflame. So which is true? Not only the story makes it tiptoeing on what really happen, it’s how Diop shows it with her lyrical vision. What I appreciate the most out of this beautifully made film is that she allows a lot of space for the emotion and atmosphere to sink in. In one instance, the camera focuses unbrokenly on Souleiman just sitting quietly in the back of the truck while his friends are dancing. Or Ada’s feeling hung up over the sudden departure of her boyfriend is a mixture with scenes where she’s alone, and the sunset over the big ocean. It’s such a quiet, yet difficult emotion to portray on-screen, and other filmmakers would go for more conventional yelling and screaming, but here Diop opts for the opposite. The image of the waves across the ocean, couple poetic narration, creates a strong sense of sadness and belonging that sinks in all the more.

And then Atlantiques changes shape again from detective case to supernatural ghostale, which both works and doesn’t at the same time. Thematically, this transition makes sense as the “ghosts” never truly leave behind the land they lived and the things they loved, but at the same time the story suffers a bit from inconsistency. In addition, the subplot between Ada and her fiance Diou feels underdeveloped.

There’s still something to note from that subplot, however. Despite her love for Souleiman, Ada is still a victim of how this society treats female. Aside from her arranged marriage, at one point, she is asked for virgin-examination. Despite its haunting atmosphere for most of its time, Atlantiques’s finale actually offers some sort of elevating. In one angle, this is a story about a girl who overcomes her grief and be stronger because of it. This is an exciting debut feature for Mati Diop, and I’m certain that when it releases worldwide it’ll pick up fans along the way.

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