Albert Serra’s bizarre epic is a cheese-dream of French imperial tristesse, political paranoia and an apocalyptic despair. It is a nightmare that moves as slowly and confidently as a somnambulist, and its pace, length, and Serra’s beautiful widescreen panoramic framings – in which conventional drama is almost camouflaged or lost – may divide opinion. I can only say I was captivated by the film and its stealthy evocation of pure evil.
Admirers of Serra’s previous movies The Death of Louis XIV and Liberté will know what an uncompromisingly original and startling film-maker he is. That distinctiveness is certainly on display with this new spectacle, but with intriguing new hints of David Lynch and Nicolas Winding Refn. (Refn famously directed Agatha Christie’s Marple on British TV; perhaps Albert Serra will turn out to have done some uncredited work on Death In Paradise.) The setting is Tahiti, part of French Polynesia and thus part of the French republic; its lush coasts and landscapes are evoked with breathtaking flair, yet with something lowering in their beauty, something sinister imposed upon them from above or a haze they have had to generate from below.
Benoît Magimel (who seems to be morphing into Gérard Depardieu before our very eyes) is M de Roller, the French high commissioner who strolls around with raffish entitlement in his rumpled white suit, a breezy sleazy fellow who enjoys patronising all ranks of the Tahiti population. He hangs out at the local club owned by Morton, another white expatriate, played by the reliably unsettling Sergi López, and De Roller grinningly ogles the almost naked bar staff and glad-hands all the other seedy officials there. He also loves hanging out with the semi-clad indigenous dancers who perform traditional dances for the tourists and, like a poundshop Paul Gauguin, fancies himself a connoisseur of their traditions. He has also fallen in love with the dancers’ choreographer Shannah (Pahoa Mahagafanau).
But De Roller’s mood has become more cynical and dyspeptic as his term of office reaches its end, and he is disconcerted by new developments on the island. There seem to be more and more military personnel around, including a certain admiral (Marc Susini), who, when drunk, tells people at the club about the importance of behaving ruthlessly with one’s “own people” (which constitutionally includes Tahitians) to scare potential enemies. De Roller chairs an excruciatingly difficult meeting with indigenous representatives who demand to know if there is any truth in the rumour that the French government is preparing to resume nuclear testing on the island (which, notoriously, took place in secret from the 60s to the 90s.) De Roller, in a cheerfully evasive style, which reminded me of a certain British politician, tells them what they want to hear, and finishes with what he imagines to be a charming bit of patriotic whimsy: promising that they would be welcome at the new casino being built, where Bastille Day would be duly celebrated every year.
But in his heart, De Roller knows that this personal Eden of his is about to become poisoned, and perhaps that poison of political bad faith has always been there. A Portuguese diplomat (Alexandre Melo) arrives on the island, making a fuss about his lost passport, and then temporarily loses consciousness, perhaps drugged; was he secretly investigating the French nuclear project? Either way, Shannah takes it on herself to nurse him, a terrible blow to De Roller’s amour propre. And, are the committee of anti-nuclear protesters, De Roller wonders, being sponsored by France’s nuclear rivals: the Russians, the Americans, the Chinese?
As the neurosis and horror roll in like invisible fog, De Roller takes a final tour of his beloved, yet also hated, colonial possession. There are superbly composed scenes: particularly shots of the large crafts that take parties of surfers out to where the rolling breakers come in far from shore and these big lumbering boats take on staggeringly high waves: a truly surreal spectacle. The final scenes show De Roller preparing to leave the inferno in a balletically silent and unearthly sequence. But will he actually leave?
Perhaps Pacifiction is flawed, but its waywardness is part of Serra’s authorship: it is an authentic descent into darkness.
• Pacifiction screened at the Cannes film festival.