Some kind of fever seems to have taken hold of arthouse directors the world over, as filmmakers of all nationalities rush en masse to feed on the flesh of genre cinema. French writer, director, and actor Mati Diop is only one of many touched by the phenomenon at the Cannes Film Festival, where zombies are proving to be the true stars of the Croisette. In her feature debut Atlantics (Atlantique) — the first film made by a black woman ever to be screened in Competition at the festival — she explores the poetic possibilities of the zombie figure to tell a contemporary story of immigration, persistence, love and loss.
The film opens on a group of young men working at the construction site of a futuristic tower under the burning Dakar sun. It only takes a few images for Diop’s debt to Claire Denis to jump out of the screen. The High Life director — with whom Diop has worked several times as an actor — is notorious for her heightened attention to the physical dimension of characters, and Diop similarly crafts strikingly sensual images with cinematographer Claire Mathon.
In fact, this focus on the visceral and sensuous at times threatens to plunge the film into perplexing abstraction. But the eerie beauty of the images sustains our interest as it suggests a more mystical side to the unfolding story. Otherworldly shots of the sea viewed at different times of the day punctuate the film like serene but persistent warnings of things to come.
This subtly alien atmosphere is the setting for an all too familiar — though not so often told — story: unpaid for months, the workers seen at the beginning of the film decide to set sail, hoping to find better work in Spain or Portugal. Souleiman (Ibrahima Traore) is one of those young men, but Diop does not show us their trip: rather, after the opening act in the construction site, she centres on Souleiman’s girlfriend Ada (Mame Bineta Sane). Soon to be married to a well-off man she does not even like, Ada begins the film as a carefree young woman who pays no mind to the warnings of her friends about her clandestine love affair with Souleiman. That we learn about his sudden departure to sea at the same time as she does, and with the same lack of details, gives us a sense of the void that he leaves in her life. Devastated, she silently resigns herself to her wedding celebrations — until the night when the expensive bed of her husband-to-be inexplicably catches fire. It seems as though Souleiman and the other migrant workers — or at least their souls — may have returned…
Diop bridges the gap between realism and fantasy with great elegance and aplomb, her unremitting eye for striking compositions and Fatima Al Qadiri’s unsettling but gorgeous score engulfing us into its peculiar universe. In the film’s final moments, Diop’s attempt to relate the story to Ada’s fate as a woman and to that of Senegal at large feels a little more clumsy, but it hardly takes away from the power of this bewitching romance, seeped in longing and melancholy.
Atlantics was seen and reviewed at the Cannes Film Festival.