In the most beautiful sequence in Albert Serra’s often beautiful ‘Pacifiction’, several small tourist yachts navigate the waters gently rolling below them off the coast of Tahiti. Above the sound of the waves crashing up and down, you can hear laughter and cries of delight, which could very well become cries of terror if one of the boats were to capsize. But the captains do their jobs expertly, and everyone just keeps driving and bobbing, chasing but not quite dispelling the notes of uneasiness that drive this long, disturbingly hypnotic film. Here in this Polynesian paradise, where sun-drenched tropical splendor gives way to neon-lit noir, the art of staying afloat is trickier than it seems.
One particularly seasoned tracker is a man known only as The Roller (Benoît Magimel), who serves as the French High Commissioner of Tahiti. Wearing his authority as light and calm as his white suit and tropical-print shirts, De Roller peers through tinted sunglasses at a world he has embraced as his own. He is a remnant of European colonialism, a representative of a state whose power in the region has diminished but barely disappeared; he is also a self-proclaimed expat and a guide to the island and its various conflicting, overlapping agendas. His own intentions remain obscure in a story that luxuriates in a physical and metaphorical haze, preferring to hint at mysteries rather than solve them.
At night, De Roller serves cocktails under umbrellas in a bar filled with locals and visitors (they’re not always easy to tell apart), attended by servers in glow-in-the-dark thongs and bikinis. During the day, he receives guests, gives speeches, solicits information, and attends meetings, the most controversial of which involves an indigenous activist (a stern Matahi Pambrun) questioning De Roller about a disturbing development on the lush peach-pink horizon. There are rumors that France plans to resume a campaign of nuclear tests around the island, a possibility signaled by the French marines we see arriving here early, transported by an admiral (Marc Susini) who is also one of De Roller’s regular consorts.
In real life – a state the playfully titled “Pacifiction” evokes in its languid, plot-averse way – dozens of nuclear tests were conducted in Polynesia between 1966 and 1996, exposing approximately 110,000 people to radiation and taking a catastrophic toll on humans and environment was required. which France has never recognized. Sometimes we hear references to that toll, such as when a character describes the multiple cancers (breast, throat, thyroid) a local woman went through in quick succession. But those consequences remain unseen and largely undramatized, as do the quasi-intrigues and hushed rumors – of a passport stolen from a visiting Portuguese diplomat (Alexandre Melo), or of Tahitian women being smuggled aboard French nuclear submarines – that occasionally sneak into the frame. .
De Roller spends his days lazily investigating these matters while overseeing Tahiti’s cultural and economic interests, positioning himself as a proud Frenchman, an adopted Tahitian, or a hapless go-between, as the occasion demands. You might be reminded of one of Graham Greene’s self-exiled anti-heroes; I myself flashed back to Lucrecia Martel’s brilliant 2017 film “Zama,” about an 18th-century Spanish preacher languishing under the South American sun. In that film, a sustained descent into a Conradian heart of darkness, the sense of moral and physical putrefaction was pervasive and the minister’s identity crisis ended in murder and madness. The anti-colonialist vision of ‘Pacifiction’ is more subdued but perhaps also more insidious; here the rot remains largely hidden from view. (The most overt violence occurs between two roosters during a traditional cockfight-themed dance.) The Roller rolls on and on, completely oblivious to – or casually mastering – the chaos lapping at its banks.
“I just make sure everything is in order,” says De Roller in a conversation with a potential investor. But things are far from OK, something Serra trusts you’ll understand, even as he refuses to break the intoxicating spell on Tahiti itself. One of the most stunning widescreen panoramas in film (taken on digital cameras by Artur Tort) shows an open-air church surrounded by lush palm trees, mossy hills and a cloudy blue sky – a picture as perfect as a postcard. almost overlooking the sight of De Roller threatening the priest and demanding that he not oppose the opening of an upcoming casino. In scene after scene, Serra balances beauty and menace in a kind of awkward balance. He has made a film about trouble in paradise where the troubles don’t so much overwhelm paradise as poison it, with an almost imperceptible slow trickle, from within.
That pleasurable aesthetic tension may explain why, despite its unhurried editing, narrative miasma, and generous 2 1/2+ hour running time, “Pacifiction” emerges as one of Serra’s more tantalizing efforts. For this Catalan filmmaker, known to festival-goers and art-house audiences for his inventive, sometimes mischievous handling of literature and history (‘Birdsong’, ‘The Death of Louis XIV’), the film marks a rare foray into a world of contemporary paranoia. . It also finds him embarking on a highly eccentric partnership with Magimel, whose performance recently earned him a César Award. For much of the shoot, Magimel had to recite lines made up on the spot and relayed to him by Serra through an earpiece – a fascinatingly intuitive choice for a character forced to maintain a polished, jovial presence in the face of multiple external pressures and strangers . .
That improvisational approach forms the basis of ‘Pacifiction’, which, like much of Serra’s work, shows ingenuity and meticulousness in a documentary style. (The film was shot under COVID-19 restrictions in August 2021, which certainly explains the eerily undercrowded, vaguely otherworldly atmosphere.) Serra’s techniques may, not for the first time, frustrate your desire for narrative clarity and resolution, but they’re also the hallmarks of a filmmaker who lives excitingly for the world he shows us. Never is this more apparent than when his camera falls on the strikingly beautiful Shannah (Pahoa Mahagafanau), a transgender woman who is never far from De Roller’s side, and whose suggestive, sphinx-like smile turns intimate, welcoming and conspiratorial by turns.
We see Shannah interacting and working a lot, sometimes as a hotel receptionist and sometimes as a dance choreographer, but who is she in this film’s intoxicatingly diffused narrative scheme? A lover? A femme fatale? The ghost of the place? It’s not obvious and it hardly matters; she’s watching you. She is the most seductive of this film’s many mysteries, and perhaps a guardian of many others.
In French, English, Polynesian and Portuguese with English subtitles
Duration: 2 hours, 42 minutes
To play: Begins March 3 at Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles; begins March 10 at Laemmle Glendale