Directed by Albert Serra
Review by: Iva Apostolova
Despite the fact that Pacifiction enjoyed only a limited screening in Ottawa’s ByTowne Cinema in early March this year, it is currently streaming on AppleTV. It is true that the movie’s whopping nearly three-hour length is a bit of a deterrent for theatre showings, I’m hoping it will be picked up by more streaming platforms, as it is a tremendous movie. Upon its festival premier in 2022, Pacifiction quickly garnered an envious number of nominations (34 to be precise), among which the Palme d’or and Queer palme, winning 13 awards in total, including César for Best Actor (Benoît Magimel) and Best Cinematography (Artur Tort).
Directed by the Catalan director Albert Serra (who often works in French), the movie is almost entirely carried out by one of French cinema’s best, yet understated, actors, Benoît Magimel. I was not surprised in the least by Serra’s choice of a leading man – strong chin, signature French pout, brooding blue eyes and a dollop of fearlessness when it comes to character choices, Magimel’s film credits include such gems as La haine, Les enfants du siècle, Le roi danse, La pianiste, La possibilité d’une ïle, La tête haute. I’ve always thought of him as two parts Alain Delon and one part Vincent Cassel.
Pacifiction is every bit the epic story that the plot summary suggests it is. Shot entirely in French Polynesia, mostly in Gaugin’s paradise, Tahiti, the movie is not shy to put on display the unforgettable Polynesian nature (there are otherworldly sunsets and plenty of wide shots of the island from a helicopter) against whose backdrop a very different drama/trauma is silently unfolding. Magimel’s character, known to the viewer only as De Roller, is the French High Commissioner in Tahiti. He is the epitome of a bon vivant – impeccably dressed in white linen suits and brightly coloured shirts, soft spoken, sporting blue tinted glasses and despite the heat, always a flawlessly styled coif. But that’s precisely where a discrepancy, a dissonance of sorts begins to creep in. The more you expect De Roller’s political and moral corruption to ooze out of his character the same way his paunch protrudes out of his mid-section, the more Benoît Magimel will make you question your assumptions. When a self-righteous French admiral arrives on the island in a submarine, and rumours of renewed nuclear testing, much like the ones the French government carried out for three decades all the way through the 90s, start swirling, we see De Roller literally spring to life. On the surface, the High Commissioner doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary – he is driven around in his ostentatious white car visiting local bars and restaurants, engaging in seemingly mundane chit-chat with a troupe of Polynesian dancers about their costumes, travelling to nearby atolls to have drinks with old friends. To top it all off, there is a hint of a romance between the High Commissioner and a transwoman, portrayed by the beautiful Pahoa Mahagafanau. The romance is as ambiguous as it is symbolic of De Roller’s relationship with the islands themselves. And yet we realize, almost at the last minute, that all this time while dining and sipping on exotic drinks, De Roller is, in fact, negotiating with the highest of powers, imperceptibly steering the island politics in one direction or another, but above all, trying to act as a human shield against what everyone fears will once more devastate this paradise. If there is any moral of the story, it is this: politics is done in the liminal space of soft-spoken hints and glances, and above all, it is carved out of compromises rather than in loud proclamations, fist-pumping or marches.
I found myself mesmerized by Serra’s documentary-like style of shooting where it seems as though he’s left the camera rolling until, finally, something actually happens in front of it. The experienced viewer will, no doubt, be reminded of Claire Denis’ cinematographic signature; there are parallels to be drawn between Denis’ Stars at Noon and Serra’s Pacifiction, right down to the white linen suits of the male protagonists. But while in Denis’ movies the main character really is the landscape itself, which, much to my annoyance, makes her human participants appear random, their actions gratuitous, Serra’s protagonists are emphatically purposeful, his symbolism controlled. Where Stars at Noon gets lost in its own self-indulgent ambiguity, Pacifiction leads the viewer gently but unmistakably down the rocky path of reflecting on France’s colonial past and its complicated legacy.
Iva Apostolova is a professor of philosophy at Dominican University College and a regular film reviewer.
Running time: 2h 45m
Streaming on AppleTV