The first film directed by a black woman to be in competition for the Palme d’Or is a haunting romance, political drama and surreal dreamscape all rolled into one.

For the first time in its 72-year history, the Cannes Film Festival has a film directed by a black woman in its main competition. But even if Atlantique didn’t have that statistic in its favour, Mati Diop’s debut feature would still be remarkable: a haunting romance that begins as a stark portrait of class division in Senegal, but grows into something bracingly different and original, without ever losing its political focus.

More like this:

-       Cannes 2019 review: Les Misérables

-       Cannes 2019 review: The Dead Don’t Die

-       Ten must-see films at Cannes

Its heroine is Ada (Mame Bineta Sane), a willowy young woman from a poor Dakar district who is supposed to be marrying a well-off playboy, Omar (Babacar Sylla), but who keeps sneaking away for tender seaside trysts with her soulmate Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré). In the evenings, their promises of eternal devotion are almost drowned out by the roar of the ocean. In the daytime, Souleiman’s words are almost drowned out by oppressive traffic noise and the shouts of aggrieved workers. He is helping to build Dakar’s latest luxury skyscraper, the kind of impossibly high steel and glass mountain that is usually seen in films being climbed by Tom Cruise or Dwayne Johnson.

The building is destined to house the super-rich, but in the meantime Souleiman and his friends have laboured without pay for three months, and their foreman refuses to say when that might change. In effect, they are all slaves. Ada is trapped, too: her fiancé’s family insists that she go to a male doctor for a ‘virginity test’ before their wedding. Enough is enough. Humiliated by their debts and by their inability to support their families, Souleiman and a dozen of ‘the boys’ board a small boat and set sail for Spain. But, before long, word reaches Ada that the boat has sunk.

Diop’s beguiling film may even have reinvented a genre

As beautifully shot as the film is – and as dazzlingly gorgeous as its star-crossed lovers are – Atlantique seems at this point to be a straightforward account of working-class Africans being driven from home by economic hardship. Diop’s own uncle, Djibril Diop Mambéty, surveyed similar territory in 1973’s Touki Bouki, the only African entry in BBC Culture’s critics’ poll of greatest ever foreign-language films. And Diop herself covered it in a short documentary called Atlantique 10 years ago. But after a directionless middle section, her new film veers off into a mysterious twilight zone of its own. Following a spate of inexplicable fires, an ambitious police detective, Issa (Amadou Mbow), is convinced that Souleiman has returned from Spain, and that Ada must be hiding him. The truth, which Diop reveals in precise increments using restrained special effects, is far spookier.

It’s best to watch the film without knowing the exact nature of that truth. But at the start, when the silvery skyscraper looms above the dusty red landscape, it looks like something out of a fantasy blockbuster. And, later on, when one of Ada’s friends is feverish, an imam talks casually about the treatment she will need if she is possessed by a djinn. In short, Diop is dropping hints that Atlantique might just encompass both the social-realist and the surreal. But it is no less spine-tingling when the swollen sun sets over the sea every night, and something weird keeps happening. Dreamy yet sensual, fantastical yet rooted in uncomfortable facts, Diop’s beguiling film may even have reinvented a genre. As for which genre that is, watch Atlantique and find out.


Love film? Join BBC Culture Film Club on Facebook, a community for film fanatics all over the world.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.

Around the BBC