David Jenkins


Pacifiction – first-look review

Albert Serra returns with an apocalyptic saga set in Tahiti in one of his most accomplished and mature films to date.

When it was announced that the Spanish filmmaker Albert Serra was set to premiere his new feature, Pacifiction, in the Cannes competition, the instant and obvious reaction was, “Oh, he’s finally made ‘one for them’.”

A longtime prowler of the margins and sidebars, Serra’s slow, concept-driven and historically-entrenched cinema is programmed in such a way that it provides a measure of caution to the uninitiated festival patron. His non-narrative previous film, Liberté, for instance, ran at close to three hours and consisted of an 18th century woodland-based orgy captured almost in real time.

It’s a rare joy to report, then, that his acceptance into the festival’s highest echelon is not cover for a cinematic softening exercise, as Pacifiction is a 100 percent pure uncut Serra – accept no substitutes. It is challenging and dreamlike in its presentation, a grand tragedy charting the downfall of a man and, quite possibly, mankind in toto.

It’s a film that is connected very much to the geopolitical now, and the notion that however big or important we may feel we are inside a certain system, there’s always someone bigger, stronger, and possibly madder lurking in the shadows, waiting for their moment to put you in check.

Veteran French actor Benoît Magimel dons a loose-fitting cream suit, Hawaiian shirt open to the chest and a pair of blue-tinted dark glasses as French High Commissioner to the Republic of Tahiti De Roller. He is an operator of the utmost poise, slinking between the backstage area of a local nightclub where he delivers detailed feedback on cabaret performance rehearsals, to meetings in far-flung locales where he suppresses dissident behaviour, or makes sure the fix is in on his favoured mayoral candidate.

The arrival of a submarine sparks rumours that the French plan to reinstate nuclear testing in the relatively-stable region for the first time in 20 years, and try as he might, De Roller can’t seem to get the inside track on what’s actually going down. he entire film hangs on Magimel’s jittery and detailed performance, a mess of tics and pouts in which he exudes soft-spoken confidence and a benign personability while clearly masking the realisation that he’s almost reached the limit of his jumped-up professional usefulness.

While this sounds on paper like boilerplate John le Carré or Graham Greene territory, Serra rolls out the story in such a way which foregrounds the crushing existential weight of the situation. Lush widescreen panoramas of shorelines, jungles and domestic encampments are filmed so the sun glimmers from them, making them appear as an ethereal paradise on Earth. The skies are streaked with tangerine hues, a portent of the fiery apocalypse that sits just beyond the horizon.

Serra’s experiments with duration and the way he paints with bodies in the frame in certain sequences add to an overall transition towards the surreal in the film’s second half. And the dry ironist of yore is still very visible, mainly in the way that De Roller adopts a different guise and a different way of communicating with every person he encounters. Pacifiction is by far Serra’s most serious and sombre film to date, an epic of neutered power and human expendability – a death-knell for humanity that’s rendered as a tropical daydream.

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Published 27 May 2022

Tags: Albert Serra Benoît Magimel Cannes Pacifiction

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