Catalan filmmaker Albert Serra belongs to a rarefied international film culture guild: the insistent and defiant explorers of “slow cinema,” alongside the fest-beloved likes of Pedro Costa, Tsai Ming-liang, Lav Diaz, and Sharunas Bartas. It’s a misnomer, in some ways — movies, like life and time, always roll onward at the same rate; what’s different is the quantity of visual and narrative goods being delivered, and the measure of mystery and non-omniscience that the films allow. Better to think of movies like Serra’s as less distracted, less dictatorial, more interested in grasping the present moment than in stampeding to the next.
Serra’s new film, Pacifiction, isn’t actually slow at all: It’s busy, messy, expansive, noisily inhabited, and filthy with narrative life. But does it tell a story, or just occupy a vexed social space? (That’s Pacifiction, by the way, not Pacification — the original and overly literal French title translates to “Torment on the Island” and the English coinage is a cheeky jape, a smush of “pacific” and “fiction.”) Like a lot of his slow-burning fellow travelers, Serra is something of a mad scientist, experimenting with our perceptions, attentions, and expectations. It’s a gorgeous experience, but be prepared to be operated upon.
The film departs significantly from Serra’s previous projects, which took European literary tradition and history — from 2006’s Honor de Cavalleria, a riff on Don Quixote, to 2016’s The Death of Louis XIV and beyond — and converted them into Beckettian ghost rituals, draining the dramatic logistics out of the subjects and crafting extreme versions of what Pauline Kael once derisively called “Come Dressed as the Sick Soul of Europe Parties.” (She was mocking Michelangelo Antonioni and Alain Resnais, incredibly.) Serra’s films have often emerged from art installations, and you can tell: It’s as though we have the liberty to walk around the exhibit and take as long as we like doing it. Pacifiction — which clocks in at a well-felt 2.75 hours — is in some significant ways a radical departure. For one thing, it is set in a cell-phone-less 21st century, and in Tahiti.
For another, it is a visual explosion of tropical grandeur, often shot during the Days of Heaven dusk/dawn “magic hour,” so the volcanic landscapes and jungles and sunset-scorched beaches glow with breathtaking auroral beauty. The film, photographed by Serra’s go-to DP, Arthur Tort, easily rivals any film shot on the Pacific islands for pure ravishment. You can’t help but think the action will be in counterpoint to this vacation-porn dazzle, and it is.
French star Benoît Magimel, aging into a nice grizzly Delon/Mastroianni decadence, is De Roller, a French bureaucrat glad-handing and manipulating his way through a stint as commissioner of a French Polynesian island. Immediately, this Graham Greene–ish displaced man has his antennae pinged, when he sees a crew of French sailors, with their cagey admiral (Marc Susini), come ashore, although no ship is in sight. Amid his wheedling relationships with the native islanders, most of whom are employed in this paintbox paradise’s tourist trade as well as with often mysterious visitors, De Roller realizes he must contend with the rumors that the military might resume nuclear testing nearby, despite its legacy of cancer plumes inflicted on the locals.
He covertly tries to find out more, having an inebriated diplomat’s passport stolen, getting some maybe-insiders drunk, and blackmailing others, all while the Indigenous leaders inform him that they plan on staging violent rallies in protest, maybe with the secret aid of unsavory global actors.
You glean this anxious thread without exposition — Serra’s method is rather Robert Altmanesque, planting us down into discursive, often alcohol-fueled conversations in which the characters’ intentions and roles in this nascent crisis are rarely expressed. Evidence mounts and gossip about a submarine swirls, but the film isn’t as interested in narrative tension as in a weary sense of post-colonialist fate playing itself out. With its overwhelming skies and stupefying frontier beauty, the film radiates a feeling of Western folly and doom; it’s the last outpost for Europeans looking to escape from themselves, while the Polynesians bristle at the last strand of French imperialistic control. Without any kind of support, De Roller struggles to please everyone, and the more he keeps talking and asking troublesome questions, the more we suspect his time is up. It’s all One Last Round of Cocktails, and twilight is coming.
In the process, Serra squats in this fraught terrarium like a patient mapmaker, so we get an idea of the island’s whole ecosystem, including its pansexual sex trade, its native politics, its ambivalent attitude toward the tourists’ exoticist desires, its environmental precarity. Super-tropical lushness aside, Pacifiction has us soaked in the experience of these people, and how much they withhold, including Sergi López as a cagey club owner, lit critic Cécile Guilbert essentially playing herself as a slumming writer, and especially Pahoa Mahagafanau, as a slinky trans club worker and escort who’s also De Roller’s primary confidante. (Typical of the film, if they have a sexual relationship, it’s a secret.)
Ultimately, Serra’s film dances around our understanding, like a flirtatious foreigner, conspicuously challenging our idea that we, as viewers, are privileged to know everything about these people and this place. There are intimations of apocalypse, but, like De Roller, we’re left on the outside. ❖
Michael Atkinson has been writing for the Village Voice since 1994. His latest book is the new edition of his BFI tract on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.
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