Monday 24 April 2023

Trouble in paradise: "Pacifiction"

One way of approaching Albert Serra's
Pacifiction - perhaps the most useful way of approaching Albert Serra's Pacifiction - is to imagine what Apocalypse Now would have been like had it spent the entirety of its 160 minutes upriver with Kurtz. We find ourselves in latter-day Tahiti, under skies the colour of dubious tiki bar cocktails, as guests of one Monsieur De Roller (a High seems to have gone missing in transit), French High Commissioner of Polynesia. This is a role in which you instinctively feel Gerard Depardieu would have excelled, before the actor became too problematic to work with; in his place, we have Benoît Magimel, a little more filled out than usual as the robust image of neo-colonial privilege, lording around the island in a Del Monte suit and floral shirts, looking for all the world like someone who was big (or maybe just acceptable) in the 1980s and was asked to leave town in a hurry shortly thereafter. Instead of a plot, Serra initially lays on a series of official engagements, floating a persuasive sense of an idyll heading towards stagnation, a paradise despoiled: De Roller spends his spare time backstage, hitting on the staff or redirecting ceremonial dances, at a nightclub that operates somewhere between Rick's in Casablanca and Studio 54, allowing visiting dignitaries and passing sailors to rub up against the locals' exposed flesh. The ambient beats therein help cover up other rumblings: rumours the French are to resume nuclear testing in the area, a slow-burning kerfuffle involving a Portuguese diplomat who claims to have had his documents stolen. In both cases, we are invited to wonder how much De Roller knows about these things. At all points, you wonder how long it will be before bodies start washing up on these golden sands.

We have a fair bit of time to wonder, all told. Pacifiction proceeds at the pace of a resort caught in the off-season and falling lazily into disrepair, as cliffs do into the sea; even when it becomes apparent that the Portuguese diplomat, found spark out on a sunbed, requires medical attention, five or ten minutes pass before De Roller deigns to summon the doctor. Life and death go on here, side-by-side, mostly indifferently. As in 2016's The Death of Louis XIV and 2019's semi-notorious 18th century dogging saga Liberty, Serra is apparently engaged in a form of widescreen portraiture, using this extra time to take in the full extent of the scenery, the crime scene within it, and the rot and decay within that. The funny thing is - and I should underline that Pacifiction is a funny old film, in many respects - he's a portraitist who allows his subjects an unusual degree of freedom. It most often seems to be the actors who are organising what any given scene is about, determining among themselves where the characters go and what they say; it may not have been the case on set, but in the film Serra appears more interested in the shadowy figures lurking at the margins of his frame, while his delegation of responsibilities to the performers yields surprising turns of conversation. Consider the character referred to throughout only as "the Admiral" - an old soak (Marc Susini) connected in some way to the submarines that pop up in the bay like alligators sensing weakness - suddenly confiding to the shirtless young man next to him that he's a big fan of recreational substances. Loose lips may or may not sink ships; either way, it's clear that in De Roller's Tahiti, as in the film, anything goes.

What's truly unexpected - confounding, even - is that, despite its hefty running time and deliberate air of listlessness, Pacifiction is riven with tension and intrigue. In its idiosyncratic way, it's actually more involving than recent commercial endeavours in this field (The White LotusTriangle of Sadness) because from a very early stage Serra establishes the threat facing Tahiti comes from every direction: you don't feel you can let your guard down and relax into the scenery, because you sense something dreadful could happen at any moment. (Doubly so after relations between De Roller and the understandably anxious locals take a turn for the chilly.) Diffuse as that threat might sometimes seem, the film benefits not inconsiderably from retaining Magimel as a focal point, albeit a more than faintly elusive and slippery one. Bloviating and mansplaining, scattering pocketfuls of empty promises where'er he goes, wasting vast amounts of time and resources doing anything but the job of protection he's been put here to do, his De Roller is a mightily accurate sketch of power gone to seed; he reacts to the mildest complaint against him as if - you've guessed it - he's the real victim here. Serra knows he can always cut away to that scenery whenever the rot threatens to get too sickly (as the infamously nocturnal and squalid Liberty couldn't): his overviews of the island's rolling hills and waves speak not just to great natural beauty, but to the powerhouse this Tahiti could be under stronger leadership, or just left to its own devices. Elsewhere, the film's vision of a political class drifting entirely out of touch with the needs of a people begins to feel almost needling in its familiarity. Make the skies greyer, and Pacifiction could easily be set on an island far closer to home.

Pacifiction is now showing in selected cinemas, and available to rent via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player. 

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