by Fabien Lemercier
- CANNES 2019: Mati Diop’s first feature film mixes realism and fantasy to weave an intriguing and nebulous moral tale about immigration, love and death
"Some memories are omens". When in Senegal, filming her first full-length film Atlantics [+see also:
interview: Mati Diop
film profile], which hotfooted its way into the competition of the 72nd Cannes Film Festival, Mati Diop chose to intertwine a great variety of dimensions in a tale which could be described as a modern variation of Romeo and Juliette with a touch of the Orpheus and Eurydice about it, set against the economic tragedy that is immigration and bathed in the local and supernatural culture of the Jinn. It’s a bold, unique and eclectic cocktail which is bewildering at times in all its peculiarities, but which proves the filmmaker’s clear talent for portraying with great accuracy the reality of the young protagonist’s African life, while also showcasing Diop’s directorial prowess.
It all begins in the dust of a vast building site where a huge high-rise building is under construction. The labourers haven’t been paid for three months and the atmosphere is as choppy as the rough sea which runs the full length of the town. Amongst these angry young men is Souleiman (Ibrahima Traore) who will soon meet up with Ada (Mama Sane) for a date. But the sword of Damocles hangs over their temporary idyll as, ten days later, this beautiful young woman is supposed to be marrying Omar (Babacar Sylla), a man for whom she has no feelings but whom her family have approved ("you have to do your part, times are hard "). Worse still, when that night comes, Ada sneaks out to meet Souleiman, only to discover that "the boys have left": they’ve taken to the sea in a dugout canoe headed for Spain. At an all-time low, Ada forces herself to make her way to the wedding, flanked by her friends Dior (Nicole Sougou) and Fanta (Aminata Kane) who have no illusions over the ostentatious materialism of Omar (who spends nine months of the year in Italy). But, during the wedding night, an unexplained fire breaks out in newly-weds’ bed and Souleiman is seen in the vicinity. The police open an investigation, overseen by Issa (Amadou Mbow). She begins surveillance on Ada, who is forced to undergo an examination to verify her virginity and who now hopes that she will soon be back in the arms of her beloved once again. But phenomena of a far more supernatural kind begin to occur, inviting themselves into the lives of the characters as if looking to settle some scores…
Playing somewhere on the boundary between waking, dreaming and nightmare states, Atlantics is a film which is totally out of the ordinary, and this is bolstered by Claire Mathon’s remarkable work as director of photography. With a clear penchant for studying and scrutinising her characters’ faces, Mati Diop, meanwhile, captures the environment and (primarily) nocturnal atmospheres with the precision of a documentary filmmaker, developing a very likeable portrait of a young woman by immersing herself fully in the local life of her characters. But whilst her choice to use fantasy as the main driving force in her examination of the tragedy of immigration and its local causes is at first exciting, the relative confusion it introduces ultimately ends up spilling over into what is a very (or maybe too) ambitious film, and hindering the director’s hugely promising first steps in the world of full-length film.
(Translated from French)
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