First films don’t generally get to compete in the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival, and it’s rarer still that they end up winning second prize, which is exactly what Mati Diop’s enthralling debut, Atlantics, achieved. Then again, most first-time filmmakers haven’t had the chance to learn directly from the ever-masterful Claire Denis, as Diop did as an actor in the French auteur’s 35 Shots of Rum. Diop has clearly taken detailed notes, but also brings a lot of her own stylistic and cultural flavour to an ethereal ghost story that announces a serious new player on the world stage.
Set in Dakar, Senegal, Atlantics folds local mythology into a story of capitalism, wage theft, globalism, and oppressive religion. After not being paid for months, construction worker Souleiman (Ibrahima Traore) sets off in a doomed boat bound for Spain, leaving his young girlfriend Ada (Mama Sane) in a fugue state of grief and confusion. Soon, though, inexplicable fires start occurring, and it seems as if Souleiman’s angry spirit may be behind them. Though the backdrop to its story is resolutely realistic, Atlantics is unafraid to dive head first into the supernatural, and the mystery it crafts is all the more compelling thanks to this boldness.
Why are Ada’s friends suddenly in near-comatose states? What could possibly be setting the fires? Is police inspector Issa’s (Amadou Mbow) dogged interest in Ada professional or is he hosting Souleiman’s spirit? There’s something slippery and ever-warping about Atlantics’s story, but Diop and cowriter Olivier Demangel make sure to give satisfying answers to every question they raise. The mystery is exciting and eerie, even if can move indulgently slowly at times, and its social context keeps it grounded even as the white-eyed spirits gain more and more prominence.
The pupil-less gazes of the djinns is a simple but unnerving trick to suggest their otherworldliness and Diop uses similarly efficient visuals throughout. Holographic lights at a disco blend the corporeal and ethereal long before the ghosts show up, while Diop finds menace and melancholy in the roiling sea – her lingering aerial shots of the waves are hypnotic. The supernatural and reality collide in her skylines, the tower owned by the scumbag tycoon who denied Souleiman his money looming over the rest of the city like a monument straight out of a sci-fi or fantasy landscape. The sense of unease about what exactly is real is pervasive, though actual scares aren’t what Diop has set out to achieve.
Made with such confidence and stylistic verve, it would be hard to guess without already knowing that Atlantics was a first film. Its frequent emotional opaqueness won’t be for everyone, but a mood piece like this rarely has such a genuinely propulsive plot, making for a unique proposition even before the spooky stuff starts escalating. Not quite a horror or a fantasy but also more than just a mystery or star-crossed romance, Diop blends genres with consummate skill, marking her out as an already strikingly accomplished director.