AAlbert Serra’s bizarre epic is a cheese dream of French imperial sadness, political paranoia and apocalyptic despair. It’s a nightmare that moves as slowly and confidently as a somnambulist, and Serra’s pace, length and beautiful wide-screen panoramic frames – in which conventional drama has been almost camouflaged or lost – can divide opinion. I can only say that I was captivated by the film and its covert evocation of pure evil.
Admirers of Serra’s previous films The Death of Louis XIV and Liberté will know what an uncompromisingly original and surprising filmmaker he is. That distinctiveness can certainly be seen with this new spectacle, but with intriguing new hints from David Lynch and Nicolas Winding Refn. (Refn directed Agatha Christie’s famous Marple on British TV; perhaps Albert Serra will turn out to have done some uncredited work on Death In Paradise.) The setting is Tahiti, part of French Polynesia and thus part of the French republic; the lush shores and landscapes are evoked with breathtaking flair, but with something that belittles their beauty, something sinister imposed on them from above or a haze they have had to induce from below.
Benoît Magimel (who appears to be turning into Gérard Depardieu before our very eyes) is Mr. de Roller, the French high commissioner who walks around in his rumpled white suit with raffish rights, a light-hearted sleazy fellow who enjoys seeing all the ranks of the Tahiti population. Hanging out at the local club owned by Morton, another white expat, played by the reliably disturbing Sergi López, The Roller ogles grinning at the nearly naked bar staff and happy with all the other shady officials there. He also likes to hang out with the half-dressed native dancers who perform traditional dances for the tourists and, like a pound shop Paul Gauguin, sees himself as a connoisseur of their traditions. He has also fallen in love with choreographer Shannah (Pahoa Mahagafanau) of the dancers.
But De Roller’s mood has grown more cynical and dyspeptic as his tenure ends, and he is troubled by new developments on the island. More and more soldiers seem to be around, including a certain Admiral (Marc Susini), who, when drunk, tells the people in the club how important it is to be ruthless with one’s own people (which is why Tahitians also belong) to fear potential enemies. The Roller presides over an excruciatingly difficult meeting with indigenous representatives who want to find out if there is any truth to the rumor that the French government is preparing to resume nuclear tests on the island (which allegedly took place in secret from the 1960s to 1990s.) The Roller, in a cheerfully evasive style, which reminded me of a certain British politician, tells them what they want to hear, ending with what he imagines as a charming bit of patriotic whimsy: promising they’d be welcome. are at the new casino under construction, which would celebrate Bastille Day annually.
But in his heart, The Roller knows that this personal Eden of his is about to be poisoned, and perhaps that poison of political bad faith has always been there. A Portuguese diplomat (Alexandre Melo) arrives on the island, makes a fuss about his lost passport, then temporarily loses consciousness, perhaps drugged; was he secretly investigating the French nuclear project? Either way, Shannah takes it upon herself to groom him, a terrible blow to The Roller’s amour-propre. And becomes the committee of anti-nuclear protesters, De Roller wonders, sponsored by France’s nuclear rivals: the Russians, the Americans, the Chinese?
While neurosis and horror roll in like an invisible mist, De Roller takes a final tour of his beloved, but also hated, colonial property. There are beautifully composed scenes: especially shots of the large craft carrying groups of surfers to where the rolling breakers enter far from the shore and these large bulky boats on dizzyingly high waves: a truly surreal spectacle. The final scenes show The Roller preparing to leave the inferno in a ballet-like quiet and unearthly sequence. But is he really leaving?
Pacifiction may be flawed, but its quirkiness is part of Serra’s authorship: it’s an authentic descent into darkness.
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