Paranoia in paradise: a government official is driven to madness amid the lush splendors of French Polynesia in Albert Serra’s latest.
Pacifiction, written and directed by Albert Serra, opens February 17, 2023 at Film at Lincoln Center, New York City
• • •
The Catalan filmmaker Albert Serra has specialized in idiosyncratic, minimalist studies of canonical figures, both literary and historical. Honor of the Knights (2006), his second feature, strips down the tale of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza to emphasize not their adventures but the elements—flora, sunlight, burbling streams—of the pristine landscape that the frail nobleman and his squire tread through. Delicately balanced between grandeur and absurdity, The Death of Louis XIV (2016) unfolds almost entirely in a few rooms in Versailles, where various extravagantly peruked individuals cluster around the decrepit, bedridden Sun King (played by the paradigmatic New Wave performer Jean-Pierre Léaud) as his gangrenous leg turns into an obsidian-black stump.
The miasma of decay that pervades The Death of Louis XIV also wafts through Pacifiction, a hallucinatory, disquieting, languid epic set in present-day French Polynesia (mostly in Tahiti, the most populous island of this “overseas collectivity”). The protagonist in Serra’s latest isn’t a renowned personage but a dissimulating representative of the metropole, the high commissioner De Roller (Benoît Magimel). As the portmanteau title of Serra’s film suggests, this executive civil servant is caught up in sundry fantasies—not least the paranoia that his bosses back in l’Hexagone are deliberately not apprising him of possible military developments, covert operations presided over by a shadowy sot known only as the Admiral (Marc Susini). But the bigger, more sinister fantasy is that which has brought De Roller to the South Pacific in the first place—the delusional mandate of French colonialism.
Yet the geopolitics of Pacifiction are not brashly relayed through didactic high dudgeon. Instead, they drift more stealthily via foreboding mood and atmosphere. Discordance abounds. The visual splendor of the islands—the vegetal lushness; the mauve, peach, and lemon hues that dominate crepuscular skies; the infinite blue palette of the water—clashes with the psychic rot hollowing out De Roller and other white residents and visitors, most from the Continent.
Pacifiction willfully disorients; having viewed it twice while furiously taking notes, I still cannot quite parse what happens during long stretches of this long film. But prosaic plot specifics are ancillary to what Serra and cinematographer Artur Tort are after: creating unfading images, like De Roller on a Jet Ski, the viewers so close to the action that we seem to be undulating on the swells with him; or the glow of the violet, magenta, and sapphire neon lights at Paradise Night, a squalid club frequented by the statesman. Similar to Claire Denis’s L’intrus (2004)—which also features an enigmatic white Frenchman with mysterious business in Tahiti, where the film partly takes place—Pacifiction concerns itself more with sensation than sense.
What tethers us to the film—even when his character also confounds us—is Magimel’s superb performance, full of half-grins and strained politesse, the tics of a functionary so practiced in rote bonhomie that he can no longer make the distinction between his public and private selves. Puffed up (both physically and psychologically), this vain man leads with his chest, his top-heavy body encased in his everyday, every-occasion colonizer casual-chic uniform: ivory-colored double-breasted suit, paisley shirt, espadrilles, blue-tinted glasses.
Magimel is perhaps best known in the US for Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001), in which he plays the besotted, twentyish pupil of Isabelle Huppert’s Schubert-worshipping, floridly masochistic maestra. More than two decades later, that handsome, youthful face can still be caught in flashes—but the actor now possesses a ruined, dissolute beauty, an ungainly frame. Save for that Jet Ski scene, Magimel executes nothing that remotely resembles a stunt; most of De Roller’s actions are confined to sitting, standing, and shaking hands. Yet his is a very physical performance nonetheless. The actor deftly utilizes his body, marked by the ravages (and avoirdupois) that often accompany middle age, to underscore De Roller’s pathetic political peacocking. Watching the rehearsal of an Indigenous dance meant to emulate a cockfight, for instance, De Roller gradually relaxes his arms, tightly folded across his chest, to make clumsy hand gestures and strut awkwardly along the sidelines. However peripheral, his movements recall the appalling gyrations of William and Kate (and scores of British royals before them) as they cavort with the locals during their visits to Tuvalu, Belize, and other outposts of the Commonwealth.
De Roller, in physique and grating affect, conjures up French Polynesia’s most notorious non-native: Marlon Brando, who, in 1960, while scouting locations for Mutiny on the Bounty in Tahiti, “discovered” the atoll Teti’aroa, which he bought in 1966 and where, since 2014, a resort hotel called the Brando has welcomed deep-pocketed guests. Serra has cited Tarita Tériipaia’s memoir, Marlon, My Love and My Torment, published shortly after the legend’s death in 2004, as an inspiration for Pacifiction. Reared in Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia, she acted opposite Brando in Mutiny (her only film) and was married to him from 1962 to 1972, a vexed union that produced two children, the younger of whom hanged herself, at twenty-five, in her mother’s Tahitian home.
An oblique analogue to Tériipaia can be found in Shannah (Pahoa Mahagafanau), a hotel receptionist who soon becomes De Roller’s frequent companion—an adjutant in both his aboveboard negotiations and sordid business dealings, and quite likely his lover. Mahagafanau is one of several alluring nonprofessional local actors in Pacifiction, a group that also includes Matahi Pambrun, playing an uncowed clan chief who warns De Roller that large rallies are being planned to protest the growing rumors—which the commissioner seems to be hearing for the first time—that France is going to resume nuclear testing on the islands. (From 1966 to 1996, dozens of these operations were conducted in French Polynesia; only in 2021 were the vast, baneful results of the fallout revealed.)
That De Roller cannot conclusively prove or disprove this hearsay drives him to madness, or at the very least, to a more dissociated mental state than the one he has long inhabited. His concern isn’t for the welfare of the people he is ostensibly there to represent, but for salving his own pitiful ego, irrevocably wounded by the idea that he is being made irrelevant by his bosses. He is undone by the most ludicrous fiction of all: the myth of the benevolent protector.
Melissa Anderson is the film editor of 4Columns and the author of a monograph on David Lynch’s Inland Empire from Fireflies Press.