NYFF 2022 review: Pacifiction (Albert Serra)

“It is Serra’s eye for detail, for gestures, and his radical liberation from storytelling templates that allowed him to create this bold, visionary masterwork.”

The agony and humiliation of being left out of the loop – felt by all, but most acutely by the self-aggrandizing sort, say politicians – is painful and paralyzing beyond measure. And it comes into sharp relief in Albert Serra’s hypnotic and dazzling latest film, his first set in contemporary times.

This singular Catalan filmmaker, with one foot in the art world, has always produced pictures that were like museum installations themselves – embalmed recreations of the past conveying an idea rather than a story. Pacifiction handily demonstrates that all his foibles and predilections work just as well when applied to a narrative film.

Pacifiction centres on Mon. De Roller (Benoît Magimel) who is the “High Commissioner of the Republic in French Polynesia,” the highest representative of the Government of France in the ex-colony. It is a real position, not invented for the film, and in the movie’s telling is largely ceremonial as Polynesia, autonomous since 1984, does not need babysitting by the French state.

The story, such as it is, begins with the arrival of a naval French Admiral (Marc Susini) on the shores of Tahiti with a boatful of horny young marines that soon start hanging with the locals at popular night spots. They are presumably on land to fuck and chill – in a reprieve from the rigors of naval life, but why are they really here? And where did they come from? Is there a vessel nearby? The very presence of the French military in the vicinity of the Polynesian paradise raises an alarming spectre of the resumption of nuclear testing on the islands – a contentious hot potato that caused enormous political upheaval in Polynesia in the ’70s and most recently in the ’90s. De Roller, as much in the dark as anyone else, desperately gropes his way towards the eye of the gathering storm. When he climbs to a high vantage point and scans the ocean with his James Bondian high-tech binoculars, he finally sees what looks like a submarine in the ocean – but is it?

Everyone on the islands is in the grips of rumor and paranoia and the intrigue soon spreads like an ink blot, engulfing a wide array of shady, sleazy, inscrutable characters. There’s the Portuguese diplomat (Alexandre Melo) who a day after hanging out with the French Admiral suddenly loses his passport. Meanwhile, the young indigenous Polynesian leader (Matahi Pambrun) is eager to flex some muscle and stage fake protests against the tests to drum up social media furor. Supposedly advising him is an American (Mike Landscape) who also seems to be in cahoots with the Portuguese diplomat.

Murky goings-on persist. A local named Cyrus (Cyrus Arai) is making some “installations” on nearby islands – perhaps preparatory work for the nuclear tests. There is sudden interest in refurbishing some abandoned defunct hotels on the island by Frenchman Olivier (Baptiste Pinteaux – who also functioned as the on-set dialogue-prompter via earpiece for Benoît Magimel). Boatloads of young girls set out every evening to supposedly service the sexually deprived marines but mysteriously disappear over the water without a trace. When De Roller employs the services of a surfer dude (Michael Vautor) to scour the ocean at night, they come up empty.

Serra, however, is uninterested in a traditional plot and populates his film with a vast array of interesting faces and colorful personalities beyond the ones mentioned above – unrelated to the storyline. Chief among them is a local, charismatic transgender woman, Shannah (Pahoa Mahagafanau ) – with an indeterminate role. She works at the hotel that De Roller frequents but soon becomes his ally, confidant, proxy and maybe even lover. Mahagafanau, in her film debut, billed second only to Magimel, gives a star-making performance. Author Cécile Guilbert playing a visiting writer and Montse Triola as an instructor for a local tribal dance troupe also make an impression.

The undisputed stars of the film though are the imposing Polynesian environs. Serra, with approved funding and a carte blanche, purposefully avoided making a film in Paris, deeming it “too bourgeois” and without much in the way of visual interest – at least not something not already seen on the screen before. He said he wanted to mine the riches of the old empire and make a film in one of the ex-colonies. You have to admire his instincts because the island setting indeed gives the film panoramic sweep and scope that it was unlikely to have in Europe. Though it needs to be said, Serra deeply engages with the people, the history, the culture and the politics of Polynesia (explicitly through the nuclear testing plot). He isn’t just making a travelogue though he does show off the islands to immense advantage.

Cinematographer Artur Tort captures the picturesque setting in stunning, lustrous, screen-filling images. Annihilating the stereotype of highbrow art films being drab and muted, Pacifiction is awash in deeply saturated colors – sunsets so orange and the ocean so blue it makes your eyes water. An extended surfing championship sequence is as spectacular a set-piece as any found in billion-dollar franchises. This is the best-looking film of the year and benefits enormously from the theatrical experience.

The voluptuous sheen extends to how Pacifiction films people too. Serra’s gaze glories in the photogenic beauty of the locals even as it slyly critiques and comments upon the sensualizing eye cast by white Europeans on the indigenous people. Paradise Nights, the bar where most of the action goes down, uses half-naked cheesecake and beefcake as servers at the insistence of the owner Morton (Sergi Lopez in essentially a cameo). The sultry lighting makes their bodies gleam and their skimpy white underwear glow in the dark. The local tribal dance troupe performs nearly nude too, their muscles straining and their bodies contorting in a rhythmic frenzy. Elsewhere, a topless female DJ sways to her own music with nonchalant abandon. Indeed, a general eroticism pervades the film, very secular and polyamorous in nature – the French Admiral seems equally likely to bed the local women and the local men.

That the film hangs together despite so many disparate threads is a testament to Serra’s skill because of the extremely unorthodox Malickian way he made this film. The film was made without a script on set with every single scene being improvised or spontaneously created on the spot. Actors couldn’t play to the camera because every scene was filmed with 3 cameras running simultaneously without any one being privileged over the other. The loose approach resulted in over 540 hours of footage that took months to review, let alone whittle down to a relatively compact 2 hour 40 minute runtime. It is Serra’s eye for detail, for gestures, and his radical liberation from storytelling templates that allowed him to create this bold, visionary masterwork.

Another reason the film works is the magnificent central performance by Benoît Magimel. He’s the rock on which the entire film stands. Magimel brings every ounce of his movie-star charisma (and good looks melted with age) to bear in order to play the part of the smarmy snake-oil salesman who bullshits everyone around him but is clearly in over his head. He cuts a striking colonial figure as the politician perpetually clad in a white suit and dark glasses (even at night), glad-handing and milking his privilege for all it’s worth. He’s very Trumpian in a scene where as the indigenous dance troupe rehearses a cock-fighting tribal dance, he lustily directs them to be more explosively violent and visceral.

But he also reeks of desperation in his quest to figure out what on earth is going on. In a memorable scene he goes to a local mayor, ostensibly to pump him for information, but ends up spilling his guts out – revealing more than learning anything. He’s in every scene and we are right beside him, steeped in his inexorable sense of not only FOMO (fear of missing out) but FONK (fear of not knowing). It is a remarkable performance since Magimel was largely fed dialogue (cooked up on the spot by Serra) through an earpiece, but he sells every word.

In that regard, the actors not knowing what on earth was going on is a poignant analogue to what the characters are going through. It is here that we find the clearest distillation of Serra’s thesis. Life is befuddling and uncertain at the best of times – present tense history even more so. It is futile to try to mine order from the confounding fog of things beyond our control. We are then very content to surrender with humility to a master like Albert Serra to guide us through the morass.