As has become longstanding Cannes tradition, festivalgoers are more likely to refer to a film by the director’s name than by its own title. That’s why you won’t hear as much talk about “Atlantics,” a supernatural-inflected romantic drama that premiered in competition on Thursday, as you’re likely to hear about ‘The Diop.’
Once brought up, a predictable tag soon follows: At age 36 and with her first feature-length film (though she has developed a formidable reputation on the strengths of her award-winning shorts) the Franco-Senegalese Mati Diop has become the first black woman to compete for the Palme d’Or.
Whether she becomes the second female director to claim that big prize is another question entirely, though that likelihood might be somewhat diminished by a narrative that can occasionally feel stretched and thin in certain spots, like a cracking medium-length film padded out to feature runtime. Still, that’s no matter, because the film’s real coup is the victory it scores for greater perspective.
That’s perspective, of course, not just representation, because I don’t know that labels taken by themselves offer so much value. No queer filmmaker is great uniquely due to their sexuality, just like no — let’s say — Ecuadorian filmmaker is great entirely because of where their passport was printed. Rather, the specifics and particulars of any lived experience help shape an artist’s voice, giving them unique points of view that enrich their art.
And such is the case with “Atlantics,” a film that deftly entwines a new take on the refugee crises with a look at young female adulthood, and layers it with a dose of West African folklore. The film follows Ada (Mama Sané), a 17-year-old engaged to marry one man but in love with another. Shortly before her nuptials, Ada’s chosen beau takes off for a better life in Europe and seemingly perishes along the way – only to return as a spirit, capable of inhabiting the bodies of others.
Instead of following those who flee, Diop centers this refugee tale on the ones they leave behind – while using Ada’s romantic longing as a way to explore adolescent ennui of Ada and her circle of friends. With its attention to the pains of teenagers on the cusp of adulthood, “Atlantics” can sometimes feel in step with the films of Sofia Coppola, only stripped of the layers of privilege that are hallmarks of the latter’s work.
Indeed, Diop is sure to highlight the economic injustices that cause the men to flee but does so by evoking moods and tones of a place, rather than tallying the difficulties of its inhabitants. This specific place is seaside Dakar – a spot the director evokes in tight close-ups of sweat-drenched faces and in the ambient noise of waves crashing on the shore. And if the narrative can sometimes wane, the film’s enveloping atmospherics remain tight throughout. You are there, in this 17-year old’s headspace on the shores of Dakar – and that’s a perspective unique to ‘The Diop.’