There may not be a more potent cinegeek buzz than discovering a new filmmaker with a fully formed voice and vision right out of the gate. France’s Mati Diop has ties to African-cinema royalty — her uncle is Djibril Diop Mambéty, the man who gave the world the 1973 landmark Touki Bouki (a film with its share of famous fans). Lovers of French movies and the type of family dramas that leave you both joyous and quietly sobbing in your seat know her as an actor, specifically the young woman slowly pulling away from her father in Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum (2008). Fans of Indiewood’s edgier offerings might recognize her as the costar (and cowriter) of 2012’s Simon Killer. And folks who haunt the sidebars of film festivals may have caught some of her shorts, notably her 2009 portraiture Atlantiques.
But it’s Diop’s feature directorial debut, which borrows its title from that earlier mini-doc and is less a continuation than an expansion on its themes, that immediately establishes her as someone destined to keep the art form alive and vital well into the 21st century. Atlantics is an auspicious introduction, though it’s less a calling card for the Franco-Senegalese writer-director than a statement of purpose and a flag planted in the sand. It’s been described as an “art genre hybrid” and a “migrant ghost story,” and impressed the Cannes Film Festival jury enough that they awarded it the Grand Prize, the equivalent of a silver medal. Above all else, it’s a major work that ingeniously filters its humanism through an imaginative borrowing of elements without diluting it. There’s been a lot of back and forth recently about what is or is not cinema. There’s no point in rehashing those particular reindeer games. Just watch this movie. This is what cinema looks like.
A group of young construction workers are arguing with their boss. He hasn’t paid them for three months; the skyscraper they’ve been laboring over for years simply towers above Senegal’s hazy cityscape, unfinished. One of these young men, Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), gazes tellingly out at the waves as they drive away. He meets up with Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a young woman set to be married in a little over a week to a handsome, wealthy man she doesn’t love. They kiss in a secluded section of the boardwalk and make plans to meet that night at the local club. When Ada arrives at the hangout, she discovers — along with every other female present — that the entire crew have “taken to the sea.” They’ve attempted to make the perilous journey from their home country to Spain via a boat. Their absence leaves a serious void in the lives of those left behind.
Days pass, and no one’s heard from any of these men. Everyone fears the worst. Then, on Ada’s wedding night, someone tells her that she just saw Souleiman at the ceremony. Suddenly, the newlywed’s bed bursts into flames. A young, eager detective (Amadou Mbow) suspects foul play; he also thinks that Ada is hiding the whereabouts of her lover. Then she starts getting mysterious texts on her phone. Also, many of those mourning their missing boyfriends and brothers inexplicably find themselves leaving their houses in the middle of the night, clad in nightgowns and pajamas, shuffling toward a place that seems to be calling out to them….
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.
And even when things start to dip into supernatural territory, Atlantics remains oddly grounded, still dedicated to tackling a topical subject without being dogmatic. You feel as if you’re watching something that’s region-specific, yet it never makes its characters feel like “others.” Nor do you ever sense that the act of giving these often agency-less females a voice is something based in charity, because Diop makes the endeavor feel like a necessity. It ends with a moment of desire and transcendental bliss, as well as a settling of scores and a glance into a mirror that, in a single edit, becomes a stare fixed straight at the audience. The look is not accusatory, however, so much as a suggestion of complicity, a sharing of a secret. It doubles as a nifty summation of the entire film. Atlantics pulls you into an experience. The empathy machine runs at full speed here. Ada, c’est moi.