Review: Pacifiction


Director:  Albert Serra

Stars:  Benoît Magimel, Marc Susini, Pahoa Mahagafanau

Seeming to mark a departure from the crepuscular rhythms of his audience baiting masterpieces The Death of Louis XIV and Liberté, Albert Serra’s latest arrives camouflaged as an exotic sliver of political intrigue; the director’s twilight gleanings replaced with the gasoline shimmers of sunsets over the French Polynesian isle of Tahiti. But there’s more of the director’s regular penchant for laconic dreaminess than one might expect in Pacifiction as we languidly traverse 165 minutes with one man tragically turning in circles.

Said man is the French High Commissioner Mr. De Roller (Benoît Magimel), perpetually clad in a cream suite, Hawaiian shirts and tinted sunglasses, he is the very spectre of a modern-day colonialist. The first hour or so of the film establishes his propensity for blowhard verbosity mixed with a certain level of charm that allows him to persist as the island’s foremost diplomat. He’s a godless opportunist, indicative in and of himself of France’s entitled territorial behaviour overseas (as a rueful Brit I recognise filthy European imperialism when I see it).

Yet De Roller’s privileged position in the community loses its sure footing when rumors circulate that the French government is to resume nuclear testing in the area; an idea that causes agitation in the populous but more-so in De Roller, who imagines such efforts are designed foremost to undermine his authority in the region; a slowly-encompassing paranoia that reveals much about the man’s fragile ego.

Pacifiction looks like quite the departure with it’s contemporary setting and garish bleed of saturated tropical colours, but really Serra is continuing an ongoing investigation of French nationalism, here isolating one individual in a precarious foreign territory. De Roller prides himself on his inroads and contacts on the island, but he increasingly manages to ostracise himself until, in the film’s long and haunted final act, he wanders directionlessly, overcome by the gossip – most of which he started – that he has come to believe.

Juicily, circumstantial evidence is everywhere. Did he really spy a submarine offshore through his flashy little binoculars? Where are boatloads of young women being taken everyday? Aren’t there more sailors littering the neon bars than usual? But proof is always just out of arms reach for De Roller, as Serra piecemeal reveals that there may indeed be outside forces conspiring against him.

Pacifiction feels like a Graham Greene potboiler as reimagined by Nicolas Winding Refn in his most recent period. Comically long scenes of seeming inaction. Neon bar sequences that feel conjured out of limbo. A suffused, hypnotic sense of entropy. It’s a mood that comes and goes, but becomes heady in the film’s somnambulist final stretches. Wistfully evocative of hot nights that go nowhere. Insomnia and restlessness.


Pocking this sense of menacing haze are a handful of simply staggering sequences that genuinely pull us from this reverie. The most significant and impressive caps the first act, around an hour into the picture, De Roller takes to the seas to observe all manner of surfers and vessels tugging against the roiling waves that crest and chop ferociously. Here Serra conjures the tropical malady of Francis Ford Coppola’s hallucinogenic Apocalypse Now (no mean feat). That film still feels like the last gasp of a particular era of bombastic cinema wrestled from the elements. That Serra even comes close to recapturing that ballsy verve speaks volumes of the barely-tapped talents this director seems to have at his disposal. It also reveals the soullessness of our era’s CG-addled efforts like Avatar: The Way of Water. Serra’s wildly bobbing yet controlled cameras transfer a greater sense of wonder at the ocean’s raw power than Cameron has ever managed.

Back on dry land, another auteur’s influence casually presents itself. The hotels and bars proffer forth a population of queer and trans characters in subservient roles, while half naked locals and visiting sailors prop up the bars. In combination they calmly engender the spirit of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s own nautical odyssey Querelle. Serra’s Tahiti is resplendent with a sense of halcyon gender-fluid bliss. De Roller cruises through the midway. Previously one suspects he might have gorged himself, but now he’s preoccupied, tracing the footsteps of his own inevitable downfall. His descent into rumor echoes the sentiments of one fringe element he meets with, whose ultimate goal in fighting the mythic nuclear tests is to disseminate ‘fake news’. De Roller, ultimately, becomes lost in his own Trumpisms, fervently believing something he can’t prove, actualising a myth he may have made up himself.

One of the most redundant things you can say about a film is that it’s “not for everyone” – what film is? But truly, one ought to do their homework before wading deep into this dead calm. A sustained mood is half the point of an Albert Serra joint, and if you’re not up for bending to his will, this will be a tough 2 hours and 45 minutes for you. It may tilt to the conventions of a thriller, but this is as much a cinematic tone poem as his last feature, albeit one flushed with the garish hues of the South Pacific. The French seem so comically far-from-home here, meddling with a culture they don’t much care to understand, pursuing an archaic myth of global supremacy. Serra’s film is deeply suspicious and even afraid of such pre-millennial ideals. Like De Roller, he sees apocalyptic shadows in the waters.

8 of 10

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