Mati Diop made history at this year’s Cannes Film Festival when Atlantics — her feature film debut — premiered at the prestigious festival, making her the first Black female director to compete for the Palme d’Or. Atlantics has since been picked up by Netflix and marketed as a supernatural romance. This is partly true because of its ghostly content but trying to simplify a story that is so poignant and moving is like attempting to put a cat in a toilet: incredibly hard and completely unnecessary.
The story of Atlantics focuses on Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) — a young girl in a Senegalese coastal community who is engaged to be married in just ten days. Her disinterest is evident when talking with her wealthy fiancé especially compared to the joy that is showcased when she is with Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré) — her lover. It is obvious that the two share a genuine affection — the sort of connection that is rare and precious. Soon, everything changes when a group of local men — including Souleiman — leave with no goodbye in an attempt to sail across the dangerous sea to find work. A slight glimmer of hope can be heard in the words of Ada and her friends but the known fate of the group remains unspoken. Suddenly, peculiar fires that seem to start themselves, a spreading fever that worsens during the night, and rumors of Souleiman’s return all add to the plot’s tension.
Atlantics’ imagery is quick to envelop its viewer as each shot purposely lingers — giving an appropriate amount of time to notice all the details of the take and appreciate the complexity of the emotion. This begins early in the story as I first noticed it when Ada is getting ready to sneak out and meet up with Souleiman. She carefully applies her makeup in a piece of a broken mirror and her reflection appears calm, despite her outstanding circumstances. The camera stays focused on her subtle movements so that the entire environment and character can be appreciated. The yellow light from outside her bedroom window drowns Ada’s bedroom with a nice glow that represents a slight glimmer of hope this engaged girl clings to as she prepares to meet the love of her life. Ada’s love for Soulemiman makes her confident that anything is possible.
This lingering long take that Diop utilizes often frequently features the rushing waves of the nearby sea. The shots vary in distance, color, and time of day but it always acts as a reminder of the natural power this natural body of water has over its neighbors on the mainland. These differing shots are edited between important moments and act as a nice transition from one event to the next — the sea becoming more villainous as the plot continues to press forward.
The sea is not the only cinematic element that appears different during the morning versus after midnight, as every person and place at work in Atlantics seems to transform. As mentioned above — and the most obvious instance of this — is the appearance of the mysterious fever only has serious symptoms after the sun has set. The effective use of lights and color sets the mood perfectly. Cinematographer Claire Mathon — who also worked on Portrait of a Lady on Fire — captures the Senegal environment and characters to bring Diop’s vision to the screen. The effective use of lights and color sets the mood and easily conveys the constantly changing mindset of the film while giving the viewer time to mull over what has happened.
Though the visuals of Atlantics is incomparable to any other film the overall story becomes weakened by unfocused writing. Some of the subplots feel superfluous when the fate of Ada and Souleiman’s relationship is unresolved. I applaud Diop for wanting to comment on certain political themes, however — it makes the film feel a little longer than it should be. An overall minor detail that is simple and nicely covered by the incredible imagery captured by the camera.
Haunting each of its viewers in a way that can only be described as personal, Atlantics is a great start to a bright future for filmmaker Diop, as she is using the medium to tell a confident story that she knows best. Diop’s talent is evident and her artistic vision is unique in a way that makes the story of Ada and Souleiman more than a movie that can be neatly placed into a category. Diop’s first feature film has already made history but can you imagine what she will create next?