‘Pacifiction’ evaluate: A disquieting journey to Tahiti

In probably the most beautiful sequence in Albert Serra’s often-gorgeous “Pacifiction,” a number of small vacationer yachts navigate the waters rolling gently beneath them off the coast of Tahiti. Over the sounds of waves cresting and crashing you possibly can hear laughs and cries of pleasure, which could effectively turn out to be screams of terror if any of the boats had been to capsize. But the captains do their jobs expertly, and everybody simply retains driving and bobbing alongside, chasing away however not totally dispelling the notes of unease that roil this lengthy, disquietingly hypnotic film. Here on this Polynesian paradise, the place sun-kissed tropical splendor offers technique to neon-lit noir, the artwork of staying afloat is trickier than it seems.

One particularly seasoned floater is a person recognized solely as De Roller (Benoît Magimel), who serves because the French excessive commissioner of Tahiti. Wearing his authority as flippantly and calmly as he does his white go well with and tropical-print shirts, De Roller friends out by way of tinted sun shades at a world that he has embraced as his personal. He is a vestige of European colonialism, a consultant of a state whose energy within the area has waned however hardly vanished; he’s additionally a self-styled expat and a information to the island and its numerous conflicting, overlapping agendas. His personal intentions stay unclear in a narrative that luxuriates in a bodily and metaphorical haze, and that prefers to trace at mysteries moderately than resolve them.

By evening, De Roller nurses umbrella-bedecked cocktails at a bar with locals and guests (they’re not at all times simple to inform aside), attended to by servers in glow-in-the-dark thongs and bikinis. By day, he entertains friends, delivers speeches, solicits data and attends conferences, probably the most contentious of which entails an Indigenous activist (a stern Matahi Pambrun) who questions De Roller a couple of disturbing improvement on the luscious peachy-pink horizon. There are rumors that France plans to renew a marketing campaign of nuclear testing across the island, a chance signaled by the French marines we see arriving right here early on, ferried by an admiral (Marc Susini) who’s one other of De Roller’s common consorts.

Benoît Magimel and Pahoa Mahagafanau within the film “Pacifiction.”

(Grasshopper Film)

In actual life — a situation that the playfully titled “Pacifiction” evokes in its languid, plot-averse trend — dozens of nuclear assessments had been carried out in Polynesia between 1966 and 1996, exposing round 110,000 folks to radiation and exacting a catastrophic human and environmental toll that France has by no means acknowledged. At occasions, we hear reference to that toll, as when a personality describes the a number of cancers (breast, throat, thyroid) {that a} native lady endured in fast succession. But these penalties stay unseen and largely undramatized, very like the quasi-intrigues and hushed rumors — of a passport stolen from a visiting Portuguese diplomat (Alexandre Melo), or of Tahitian ladies being smuggled aboard French nuclear submarines — that sometimes steal into the body.

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De Roller spends his days lazily investigating these affairs whereas overseeing Tahiti’s cultural and financial pursuits, positioning himself as a proud Frenchman, an adopted Tahitian or a hapless intermediary because the event calls for. You may be reminded of one in all Graham Greene’s self-exiled antiheroes; I personally flashed again on Lucrecia Martel’s good 2017 movie, “Zama,” about an 18th century Spanish minister losing away beneath the South American solar. In that film, a sustained descent right into a Conradian coronary heart of darkness, the sense of ethical and bodily rot was pervasive, and the minister’s identification disaster led to homicide and insanity. “Pacifiction’s” anticolonialist imaginative and prescient is extra subdued but in addition, maybe, extra insidious; right here, the rot stays largely hidden from view. (The most overt violence transpires between two roosters throughout a cockfight-themed conventional dance.) De Roller simply retains rolling alongside, both totally oblivious to — or in informal mastery of — the chaos lapping at his shores.

“I just make sure everything’s OK,” De Roller says in a gathering with a possible investor. But issues are removed from OK, one thing that Serra trusts you’ll grasp whilst he refuses to interrupt the intoxicating spell of Tahiti itself. One of probably the most gorgeous widescreen panoramas within the film (which was shot utilizing digital cameras by Artur Tort) exhibits an open-air church back-framed by lush palms, mossy hills and a cloudy blue sky — a picture so postcard-perfect you might nearly overlook the sight of De Roller threatening the priest, demanding that he not oppose the opening of an upcoming on line casino. In scene after scene, Serra holds magnificence and menace in a form of uneasy equilibrium. He’s made a trouble-in-paradise film the place the difficulty doesn’t overwhelm the paradise a lot as poison it, at an nearly imperceptible sluggish drip, from the within.

Benoît Magimel in the movie "Pacifiction."

Benoît Magimel within the film “Pacifiction.”

(Grasshopper Film)

That pleasurable aesthetic rigidity could clarify why “Pacifiction,” regardless of its unhurried enhancing, narrative miasma and beneficiant 2 1/2-hour-plus operating time, emerges as one in all Serra’s extra seductive efforts. For this Catalan filmmaker, recognized by festivalgoers and art-house audiences for his creative, typically impish engagements with literature and historical past (“Birdsong,” “The Death of Louis XIV”), the film marks a uncommon foray right into a world of latest paranoia. It additionally finds him enterprise a extremely eccentric collaboration with Magimel, whose efficiency not too long ago earned him a César Award. For a lot of the shoot, Magimel needed to recite strains made up on the fly and fed to him by Serra by way of an earpiece — a fascinatingly intuitive selection for a personality pressured to take care of a sophisticated, jovial presence within the face of a number of exterior pressures and unknowns.

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That improvisatory method informs all of “Pacifiction,” which, like a lot of Serra’s work, evinces a documentary-style resourcefulness and rigor. (It was shot beneath COVID-19 restrictions in August 2021, which certainly accounts for its eerily underpopulated, faintly otherworldly really feel.) Serra’s strategies, not for the primary time, could frustrate your want for narrative readability and backbone, however they’re additionally the hallmarks of a filmmaker who’s thrillingly alive to the world he’s exhibiting us. Never is that this clearer than when his digicam falls on the strikingly stunning Shannah (Pahoa Mahagafanau), a transgender lady who’s by no means removed from De Roller’s facet, and whose suggestive, sphinx-like smile proves intimate, welcoming and conspiratorial by turns.

We see Shannah mingling and dealing lots, typically as a resort receptionist and typically a dance choreographer, however who’s she on this film’s intoxicatingly diffuse narrative scheme? A lover? A femme fatale? The spirit of the place? It isn’t clear, and it scarcely issues; she retains you watching. She’s probably the most beguiling of this film’s many mysteries, and maybe a guardian of many others.


Not rated

In French, English, Polynesian and Portuguese with English subtitles

Running time: 2 hours, 42 minutes

Playing: Starts March 3 at Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles; begins March 10 at Laemmle Glendale