Monday 3 February 2020

Atlantics (Mati Diop, 2019)

Last year, Atlantics' director Mati Diop made history as the first black female director to compete for Cannes' Palme d'Or; her debut feature went on to win the the festival's Grand Prix, only being pipped to the top prize by Bong Joon-ho's much-lauded Parasite.  Diop actually made her first short film way back in 2004, but in the years between that effort and last year's Cannes triumph she had become better known for her work in front of the camera, starring in the likes of Simon Killer and Claire Denis' excellent 35 Shots of Rum.  2019 came to a close with Atlantics ending up on both Netflix and the shortlist for the Oscars, and en route to these events it had also picked up the Sutherland Award for First Feature at the London Film Festival.  Not a bad year's work.

While Atlantics didn't make the final cut for the Oscars when the shortlist was chopped in half last month, its presence on Netflix will ensure the film receives way more exposure than it would have had in the times before streaming services.  The days of such a film being relegated to a limited release on the art-house circuit - before eventually turning up on a boutique home video label - seem to be fading; at the very least, such a fate is no longer a certainty.  While it will get a Blu-ray release - via the prestigious Criterion Collection, no less - later on this year, the lengthy wait which would once have been in place between the film's theatrical release and its appearance on disc is seamlessly bridged by the streaming giant.  The Netflix vs. cinema row has been raging for some time but, in the case of Atlantics, streaming's role is hard to argue against; a film which, had it appeared 10 or 15 years ago, would have been treated as a niche title can now share a home screen with the likes of Uncut Gems, Marriage Story and The Irishman.

Anyway, on to the film: Ada (Mame Bineta Sane),a young woman living in Dakar, is due to marry the wealthy Omar (Babacar Sylla).  Unfortunately, Ada's heart belongs to construction worker Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré), who has been working on a huge, futuristic tower in the city.  Souleiman and his fellow builders are continually stiffed for wages by the developer (Diankou Sembene), which leads to them looking elsewhere for paying work, and they decide to attempt the perilous journey across the sea to Spain.  It's perhaps not much of  a spoiler to say that Souleiman and the others sadly don't make it to Europe; meanwhile, back in Dakar, Ada marries Omar, but their wedding night doesn't happen due to a mysterious fire occurring in the bridal suite.  To say what happens next would be to spoil, but suffice it to say that the film takes a sharp left turn, one for the better; it's really only once you reach the halfway stage that the film really starts to crackle and fizz, as Diop adds an extra layer to proceedings.

Much has been made of Atlantics' switch from realism to something altogether different, and it's a trick which has certainly been handled very deftly by Diop.  The film is wonderfully atmospheric, combining some beguiling cinematography with a driving, unnerving score.  Whether in the bustling streets of Dakar or by the side of the sea which plays a key part in the story, Diop shows a fine eye for light and colour.  It's a haunting, ambitious work, yet not without its flaws: there's an unevenness to proceedings which proves slightly frustrating, and the film really does take some time to get going.  But, all said, Atlantics is a fine debut feature, one which greatly impresses as it continually pushes into new territory - even if such moves don't always come off; Diop doesn't play it safe here, and there's much to like about that approach.  We'll be hearing from her for some time yet.

Darren Arnold