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Pacifiction review – sunsets and secrets in Albert Serra’s enigmatic epic

Benoît Magimel plays a government official traversing a world of danger and conspiracy against the lush backdrop of Tahiti

What do you call an overwhelming urge to pack up and spend your days marvelling at the marble pink sunsets in Tahiti, amidst faint rumours of what may or may not be nuclear testing going on in the background? Albert Serra, being part of the festival circuit’s enfant terrible canon, has coined just the word for it: Pacifiction.

A wordplay on the topos the film takes place in (French Polynesia in the South Pacific) and the overwhelming ramifications of fiction as a form of sublimating one’s inarticulate fears, the title of the Catalan filmmaker’s newest work is as hypnotic as its opening sequence. The camera tracks a flaming sunrise over docks and their shipping containers, the peachy light glazing that elaborate postcolonial metonymy set against mighty volcano mountaintops – the sun rises, the ocean laps.

Pacifiction stars Benoît Magimel as De Roller, the French government’s High Commissioner in Polynesia, Serra opting for a well-known actor as his lead in something of a directorial turn. While Magimel’s face and presence may be familiar to many, his embodiment of the High Commissioner remains somewhat enigmatic. Being unable to truly “read” the protagonist is one of the film’s main gambits, a strategy to imbue the concept of fiction itself with the poison of second-guessing, projection, and even paranoia.

The breathtaking landscapes against which Pacifiction is set (shot on location in Tahiti in burgeoning August times), startle, deter, and seduce the viewer and simultaneously fuel the wondrous suspicion to which De Roller falls prey: finding himself in the middle of elliptic conversations and hearsay, he is overcome by a desire to find the truth. In his strive towards a singular explanatory mechanism, one can read the Enlightenment values of “Old Europe,” the same ones that birthed Empire and colonialism in the first place.

But surprisingly enough, the film does not necessarily align with him throughout. Yes, De Roller is the protagonist, the one we see and hear most of, but the limits of knowability are, as in every Serra film, put to the test. The most fascinating moments here are to be found tucked away in the non-narrative-just-vibing feel of the film, and they feature the cryptic love interest/partner in crime/spy Shannah, a stunning first role for Pahoa Mahagafanau. We see De Roller shrink and expand in front of her and it’s almost like watching a mini spectacle of courting, which is at times awkwardly stilted. There is something childish that grows between them, in a closeness fed by power games and partial truths and one cannot help but smile at the small bits of candid intimacy, albeit mediated by talking instead of touch.

It seems like Serra has always been trying to make a sensual film, and has often seen a way to do so through distanciation, exhaustion, and overstimulation: just think of 2019’s Liberté. With Pacifiction, he comes close to something that resembles carnal “realism” – and we can explain it away with very particular directorial approach and setup – but in his search for a more “real” real in this gorgeous enigma of a film, I sense a scepticism disguised as fascination.

There is a scene where De Roller turns back to Shannah, who is sitting behind him in his private jet, and riffs off the dichotomy between emotion and rationality. In a way, him broaching the subject amounts to flirting. But when he says that he’s “already breaking the rule,” it remains ambiguous whether he’s referring to his affection for her, or his growing paranoia. Similarly, the whole film is full of bodies, but they are not of any interest, not for the camera, not for the characters. This factuality of bodies and closeness is meticulously calculated against a sublime ocean and its rosy waves, and they seem to annul each other’s eros.

The blushing skies are the backdrop to all sorts of (suggested) nefarious things – suspected secret submarine orgies, surveillance jet ski rides, a stolen diplomatic passport – as danger and conspiracy find themselves coated in beautiful nature like a satin veil where every wrinkle would show, if the wind wasn’t blowing. And the wind is coming from a wind machine. On a set. In a film. If everything is possible in fiction, is anything possible in fiction?

Pacification was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2022. It is released in UK cinemas on 21 April.

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