'Atlantics' ('Atlantiques'): Film Review | Cannes 2019

Courtesy of Ad Vitam
Mama Sane in 'Atlantics.'
Beware the undertow.

French actor-writer-director Mati Diop returns to Senegal for her first feature (and the first Cannes competition entry ever directed by a black woman), a ghost story starring non-professional Mama Sane as a young bride.

Mati Diop, who has worked both sides of the camera as an actor (35 Shots of Rum, Simon Killer) and a writer-director of acclaimed shorts, kicks her craft up a notch with the lyrical, richly evocative ghost story Atlantics (Atlantiques), her first feature-length project, and the first film directed by a black woman to compete in Cannes' main competition.

Echoing in title, theme and location her very first documentary short Atlantiques (2009), this film returns to the teeming streets of Dakar where Diop also shot A Thousand Suns (2013), her acclaimed medium-length tribute to Senegalese film classic Touki Bouki (1973), directed by her uncle Djibril Diop Mambety. Unsurprisingly, given it was made by a Parisian-reared woman with a deep connection to her African heritage, the film bubbles over with doubles and dualities, insiders and outsiders, and literally has ghosts of the dead dwelling inside the living.

Exquisitely shot by Claire Mathon and lushly scored by Fatima Al Qadiri, the film pulls together some exceedingly strong components. It has buckets of atmosphere to spare, enough to build a biome or two on Mars. Nevertheless, the script sometimes feels like a concept for a short attenuated to make a feature running time, and in-the-rough performances from some of the supporting, non-professional players — although discovery teenage Mama Sane in the lead role is a delight — somewhat dilute its strong brew. On the other hand, some viewers may actively savor the rawer, ragged edges.

The action begins at one end of the city, where a shiny, new, foreigner-friendly quarter is being built, loomed over by a Zaha Hadid- or Norman Foster-style asymmetric tower block still under construction. (The construction site seen already existed on location while presumably visual effects inserted the new landmark digitally.) The local workmen are pissed off, having not been paid for over three months, and the assurances from the foreman that the boss, Mr. N'Diaye (Diankou Sembene), will pay them in due course don't assuage their fury.

One of the worker, Souleiman (fine-boned Ibrahima Traore), goes back to his own neighborhood to hook up with his beloved, 17-year-old Ada (Sane, a young woman with mesmeric, lively features who knows, like pretty Gen Z girls skilled in selfie-taking around the world, how to hold still and catch the most flattering angle for a shot every time). It transpires, sadly, that neither Souleiman nor Ada are being entirely honest with each other: Ada has been betrothed to Omar, a rich man who only lives in Dakar part of the year, and the wedding is in a few days. Meanwhile, Souleiman has decided to take a boat with his colleagues to Spain that night in search of work (like the subjects in Diop's first short, Atlantiques).

Ada only learns of his decision when she sneaks out of the window to meet him at their favorite local night spot, a bar on the beach run by entrepreneurial woman Dior (Nicole Sougou). Dior, like her and Ada's friends Fanta (Amina Kane) and Mariama (Mariama Gassama), has no qualms about exploiting her beauty and sexuality with men to get ahead financially — described deliciously by Diop in the film's press notes as "Afro capitalist neo-feminism." In a bar full of women bereft now that all the men sailed away to Europe, they drench their sorrows with alcohol and stoicism, positing that tomorrow they might meet someone even richer.

Indeed, Ada's pals are green with envy when they see the furniture she's been gifted at her new husband's house, a white ersatz Louis XIV bedroom set with a monstrously massive bed, big enough to host an orgy. But someone in the wedding party sets fire to the polyester coverlet when no one's looking, and all assume that the culprit must have had some heinous reason, apart from obviously wishing to avenge this crime against interior decoration.

Local police detective Issa (Amadou Mbow) is assigned to crack the case, despite the fact that he has an unprofessional habit of disappearing or passing out just when the department is trying to reach him. Rumors circulate that Souleiman has been spotted back in town but the truth is far more unsettling. It's first hinted at when the Afro-capitalist neo-feminist ladies at Dior's bar, arranged in artful tableau poses, start to stare back at the camera with white, early zombie-movie eyes and invade the home of N'Diaye, demanding he repay to them the debt owed to his male construction workers before they shipped out to sea.

Diop goes very easy on the supernatural aspects of the story, which keeps the film from slipping into a horror movie register. Instead, assisted particularly by Al Qadiri's ethereal score that mixes electronic drones with African instruments and Middle Eastern inflections, the overall tone is held at an uncanny, arthouse pitch, lo-fi but creepy and suffused with melancholy. Most of the action seems to take place at night, lit by Mathon to produce lots of blue and purple shadows that are deeply flattering to the cast's skin tones. Throughout, the titular ocean glints, swells and waves at the viewer, almost another character in the film and possibly not a very nice one at that.

A lot of ideas about class, post-imperialism and spiritual values peek up out of the surface of the text, but they're not developed with much rigor compared to what Diop conjured with more intensity and less time in A Thousand Suns. All the same, this is a striking work and in the context of the Cannes competition, sure to hold its own thanks to its very uncommon qualities.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (competition)
Cast: Mama Sane, Amadou Mbow, Ibrahima Traore, Nicole Sougou, Aminata Kane, Mariama Gassama, Coumba Dieng, Diankou Sembene
Production: A Les Films du Bal, Cinekap, Frakas Productions production
Director: Mati Diop
Screenwriters: Mati Diop, Olivier Demangel
Producers: Judith Lou Lévy, Eve Robin
Executive producer: Oumar Sall
Director of photography: Claire Mathon
Art directors: Toma Baqueni, Oumar Sall
Costume designer: Rachele Raoult, Salimata Ndiaye
Editor: Ael Dallier-Vega
Music:Fatima Al Qadiri
Casting: Mati Diop, Bahijja El Amrani
Sales: MK2

No rating; 95 minutes