Cannes Review: “Atlantics” Is Grippingly Dense Afrofuturist Romance

Atlantics Mati Diop's "Atlantics". (Cannes)

Mati Diop’s expansion of her documentary short is a scifi-tinged genre experiment that admirably swings for the fences, even if it doesn’t totally land.

This review is part of our coverage of the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.

Back in 2009, Mati Diop directed the documentary short “Atlantiques,” which made its premiere at the Fresnoy Panorama Film Festival in France. Three more shorts and one documentary feature later comes an adaptation of her first work, a genre portmanteau that delivers on style even if it’s lacking in consistency. The most alluring part of Atlantics, however, is the genre itself—or lack thereof. Just what is Diop’s feature debut? Flirting with aesthetic tropes that point every which way, most of the fun to have here tapers off once its intentions become clear.

That, of course, is an unfortunate reality for most shorts made into features, but it circumvents this for its first half or so. Ada (Mame Bineta Sane) lives in Dakar amongst a hive mind of wonderfully independent women, as well as her boyfriend, Souleiman (Traore). They’re somewhat star-crossed lovers, though, what with Ada’s forced engagement to a rich boy named Omar (Baabacar Sylla), and to make matters worse, Souleiman is leaving his construction site job in search of a better life.

The film implies that this construction tower contains some sort of supernatural or mythical properties, possibly for the worse. Once this operates in the context of Diop’s original short film, Atlantics takes on more of an allegorical quality. Her 2009 piece was a piece on Senegalese defectors taking to the seas for better lives. In a fictional context, it carries more of a surrealist weight, toying with genre conventions of young romance and placing it against what might be science fiction. Or is it fantasy, or maybe even imagination?

Atlantics is as much a teen romance as it is a hangout movie at times, and it has more of an Afrofuturistic pulse than anything else.

It’s all quite opaque for the first 50 minutes, and Diop’s infatuation with neon lighting and naturalistic environments points to a more satiating revelation than what eventually comes into play. But when Atlantics works, it works quite well, bouncing alien-looking lights off people’s bodies and pushing insomniac pastels over walls and skin. Claire Mathon (Stranger by the Lake) is very much in her element here, as the cinematographer practically bathes in lights and oceans with equal aplomb. There is no line between natural and human-made here.

Atlantics is as much a teen romance as it is a hangout movie at times, and it has more of an Afrofuturistic pulse than anything else. Again, this works best for the first half—also known as the half that operates on Rorschach implications instead of plot. The technical prowess takes a backseat once the story kicks into drive, and once the story kicks in, it isn’t all that engaging. There are some real pacing issues that develop over its 104 minutes, and its comparatively weak attempts at mystery make it hard to forget that this was originally a short.

It’s bizarre to think that Diop originated a scripted feature off a documentary short, and to her credit, she and co-writer Olivier Demangel do solid work hiding the fact. Diop also dreams up some truly striking images in the final stretches that are much more ingrained in horror than any of the first 80 minutes. The ethnographic sensibilities of Atlantics’s first half gets lost when it veers more towards genre fare, however, and it’s often to the extent that one has to wonder just what the film could have accomplished if it maintained such an outlook.

Its allegories, be they social or economic, are firmly rooted with sci-fi. The revelations just aren’t as narratively esoteric as they ought to be. That said, what Diop does in the future remains something to look forward to. There’s a quiet, thunderous mind at work here. It just hasn’t fully condensed yet.

Atlantics Trailer:

Liked it? Take a second to support The Spool on Patreon!