pacifiction review Albert Serra

Albert Serra’s film Pacifiction is a languid, hypnotic Polynesian nightmare

4 out of 5 stars

There’s a scene in Albert Serra’s Pacifiction where a rising wave threatens to swallow the world. At least, watching it in a movie theatre, that’s what it feels like. There’s a famous anecdote about Rosemary’s Baby where Mia Farrow goes to answer the phone, her form partially obscured by a doorway. Though on some level the audience knows they can’t see around the corner, Polanski described how a test-screening of 800 people leaned over. When a very real wave crashes in Pacifiction, it’s as if, momentarily, you feel weightless. 

Running at nearly three hours, Pacifiction will no doubt divide audiences. Slow and sweaty, the film is set in Tahiti and centres on the Haut-Commissaire, De Roller (Benoît Magimel), a sweet-talking Frenchman in a white linen suit. Fearful and increasingly paranoid that his status is under threat, his calm demeanour gives way to an escalating series of bizarre and deranged encounters. Serra’s languid film blends colonial rot with apocalyptic vibes, hypnotic musical sequences included. 

Most of the film lacks the environmental intensity of the wave scene, but perhaps that’s the point. The film’s natural world always feels as though it’s encroaching on the bloated, red-faced De Roller, who seems at ease with his political power, but utterly uncomfortable in the natural world. The overwhelming sense is that De Roller, representing a larger French colonial presence, has tried and failed to dominate this other world but refuses to let go. As his mental health continues to deteriorate, he seems incapable of loosening his grip, despite the fact it’s unclear if he ever had a hold on power to begin with. 

Part of De Roller’s battle is to keep this world in the past. As a result, the film itself feels crafted from some ancient stock of old-time filmmakers. The hypnotic, slow style may feel very contemporary but the putrid decay feels at home with films like John Huston’s ode to an alcoholic bender, Under the Volcano, more than anything else. Perhaps, like an alcoholic stumbling through Mexico, De Roller is also addicted to his power, even though he’s little more than a Golden Calf — a false god ready to be burned up, ground down and fed to the water. 

The film’s unbelievable beauty is disrupted and invaded by an encroaching military presence. The wind swaying through thick jungles, and the sea rising to meet the sky, feel punctuated by anonymous toy soldiers. Tools of the military industrial complex, they’re also playthings for the perverse and lazy higher officials who prey, consume and defile all that is good, young and beautiful — their own armed forces included. 

Pacifiction review

Coasting on vibes (good, bad and ugly), it’s impossible to walk away from Pacifiction imagining the French or American overlords have contributed anything but violence to this land and its people. The movie is dark and phantasmagorical, but also can be fairly distant and inaccessible. For those who’ve never seen a film by Serra, the scenes are long — sometimes interminable. Though long discussions take place, they’re not always edge-of-your-seat gripping. There’s no storming progression of action; in fact, any sense of linear time seems completely arbitrary or inconsequential. 

In an era of easily digestible “content,” Pacifiction is elusive, even slippery. More than just merely a film that plays with ambiguity, pulling strange tensions from its environment and its characters’ odd interactions with the world, it requires both patience and attention from the audience. It’s not a film that can just be watched and abandoned; it requires time and effort to be understood and even that process might not be fully satisfying. Yet, if you allow yourself to be taken by its strange rhythms and creeping atmosphere, the experience has the quality of a dream (or a nightmare). In a cinematic landscape dominated by homogeneity, there’s no question that Pacifiction is exceptional. ■

Pacifiction (directed by Albert Serra)

Pacifiction opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, March 10.

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