Albert Serra has up to now been known for his revisionist period films, which include prankishly unconventional treatments of Don Quixote (“Honor of the Nights,” 2006), Casanova (“The Story of My Death,” 2013) and Louis XIV (“The Death of Louis XIV,” 2016). With “Pacifiction,” he makes his first film with a contemporary setting—and made his debut in the main competition at Cannes, where the film premiered—but it’s in many ways the closest he’s come to classic historical fiction. “Pacifiction” is a modern-day Conradian tale of South Seas intrigue in which De Roller (Benoît Magimel), the French government’s High Commissioner in Polynesia, investigates rumors of an impending resumption of nuclear testing. The atmosphere is chokingly sensual, the geopolitical implications are operatic, and the filmmaking is at once puckish and grand. Scratch your head at it in front of the biggest screen possible.
“Pacifiction” begins with the year’s best opening shot, a long pan across high stacks of shipping containers before a jagged volcanic mountain ridge and sky burning dull red through the tropical haze. The languorous camera movement, godlike remove, exotic location, light, and subject matter combine to give the image sweep, a druggy and lazy beauty, and an ominous undercurrent related to the invisible traffic of international capital. Made on location in Tahiti in August of 2021 (the DP was Artur Tort), the film uses its vast 2.39:1 widescreen frame to convey a beauty capable of intoxicating, transforming and dwarfing the people who encounter it, most notably in a centerpiece sequence, largely irrelevant to the plot, in which De Roller and a distinguished guest join a flotilla of tour boats, jet skis and surfers rising and falling atop crashing ocean swells dozens of feet high a long way from shore. “Pacifiction” is sun-kissed and dripping with humidity, with palm-frond greens, Pacific Ocean blues, fresh-squeezed reds, yellows, and oranges. The color palette would shame even Gauguin—a fraught comparison given the postcolonial critiques of the painter, which is very much the point in a film that explores the complex dynamics of sex tourism and imperial power.
“Pacifiction” casts its eroticizing gaze on a Tahitian nightclub, “Paradise Nights,” where French sailors spend their shore leave bathed in midnight-blue artificial light against which the waiters’ briefs glow bright white. The elfin yet malicious Admiral (Marc Susini), whose men might be berthed in a submarine offshore, awaiting a covert mission, traipses theatrically across the dance floor and flirts with the local trade, while a mysterious alcoholic on a Portuguese passport strikes up a relationship with the rae-rae Shannah (Pahoa Mahagafanau). Serra shows an exhausted Europe rejuvenating itself by surrendering to its fantasies—of forbidden pleasures, or national greatness—in what amounts to the champagne room of Empire, a secret area around back where anything goes as long as you can pay for it, and everyone is disposable.
Benoît Magimel is in practically every scene of “Pacifiction,” but never seems to be acting. Rather than give him lines to memorize, Serra fed Magimel dialogue through an earpiece to deliver and extemporize on, which he does with a consummate if somewhat throaty ease; what we see is a figure constantly integrating new input into a pose of authority, an intermittently weaving gravitas. With his pugnacious nose and gourmand’s torso, and still the same swept-back blond bangs, Magimel is no longer the pretty-boy of “The Piano Teacher,” but rather has the slightly ruined presidential suavity of Ben Gazzara in “Saint Jack.” Dressed in a cream-colored double-breasted linen suit and tropical-print silk shirts, De Roller is the same kind of fixer as that character, in a more official capacity that still allows plenty of leeway for his personal touch. The “representative of the State” in Tahiti, De Roller takes meetings, introduces literary readings, presses palms, offers help, vouches for people, serves as tour guide and even as dramaturge for a spurious tribal dance performance given at the local hotel. Much of the film simply follows De Roller on his daily errands as he takes meetings, smooths over problems, fishes for information about the nuclear testing; his sunny, solipsistic and individual style of politics fits with his frequent pompous monologues invoking the values of the French Revolution and Enlightenment. A classical liberal, or, to modernize and Americanize the metaphor, a nonpartisan consensus-builder, De Roller seeks to cool the passions of the restless natives who are planning actions around the presumed testing, and makes sentimental appeals to the better angels of the military-industrial complex, maintaining his faith in a national project compromised by an irredeemable legacy. Can the center hold?
Filming simultaneously on three digital cameras, Serra collected about 540 hours of rushes, or 180 hours of material, which he then watched back as a split-screen triptych over several weeks of 8-hour days, noting only the scenes or moments or gestures he liked, out of which the 162-minute “Pacifiction” was edited. This vibes-first approach results in a film of lurking marginal characters, obscure plot points, and elliptical narrative in keeping with the political-thriller genre, though De Roller’s descent into paranoia ultimately moves away from, rather than toward, revelation. The plot fizzles, with its final sequences offering up an existential poser, an expression of political nihilism, or a narrative-subverting raspberry, or all or some or none of the above—“Blow Up” on a waverunner, or Thomas Pynchon’s “The Year of Living Dangerously.”
A gorgeous and grave anti-epic, “Pacifiction” proceeds in scenes that serve as pristine containers for Serra’s idiosyncratic style, slow and digressive, full of flabby jokes and windy talk. It’s like watching a tropical aquarium slowly fill with algae. [A]
The New York Film Festival runs from September 30 to October 16.