Pacifiction: Tourment sur les îles (2022)

Pacifiction, a hypnotically paced, dark political thriller set in French Tahiti, directed by Catalan Albert Serra, enjoys the Polynesian island’s beauty, but also its inherent vulnerability to outside geo-political threats.

Paradise Almost Lost

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

In a lushly lensed Tahiti, the High Commissioner, Du Rollet, the louche representative of the French state, comfortably swims like a fish in the system, seeing his job as a fixer placating all sides.

Beautifully played, holding the peripatetic film together, by award-winning actor Benoît Magimel, dressed like a stereotypical Graham Greene colonialist in an unchanging crumpled white linen suit, open-necked Hawaiian shirt and horn-rimmed dark glasses, Du Rollet’s affable manner schmoozes everyone, despite its well-disguised patronising of the locals. (For instance, he ‘advises’ them on how to do a traditional dance.) He mixes easily at all levels, from a local mayor to a visiting French author on a jolly to denizens of the sleazy nightclub for expats, owned by another expat, Morton (Sergi Lopez), with boredly provocative, scantily dressed staff, where he spends his evenings.

But a fetid pall of corruption hangs over this beautiful French Polynesian colonial outpost island paradise. Du Rollet sees his repetitive daily round as being to navigate through this miasma on behalf of France.

New rumours circulate that France is to recommence the nuclear testing that caused so many unacknowledged cancers in local people last time. Representatives of the indigenous population led by Matahi (Matahi Pambrun) threaten violence if the rumour is true: perhaps either the US, China or Russia are behind their opposition, Du Rollet wonders – he’s a politician through and through.

Strange things – possibly all connected – happen. A French submarine has been spotted in the heart-stoppingly blue waters of the bay, there is an influx of marines in the nightclub with a bizarrely drunk Admiral (Marc Susini), who blabs secrets, prostitutes are seen taking boats out to sea (to the marines?) and a mysterious Portuguese diplomat (Alexandre Melo) arrives and claims he has had his documents stolen.

Du Rollet realises he is out of the loop on French policy so, while calmly as usual reassuring everyone nothing is going on beyond rumours, he takes it on himself to investigate if something really is.

There’s an atmosphere of growing dread but it’s undefined, and events are unexplained – to us as well as him. Du Rollet acquires an informal assistant, a trans (or a third sex – RaeRae or Mahu) hotel receptionist Shannah (magnetic Pahoa Mahagafanau), but we aren’t told why: something else that’s unclear in Pacifiction is what their relationship is.

Pacifiction (a portmanteau word combining Pacific and fiction) is an apparently slow-moving, almost meandering, film directed by Catalan Albert Serra (The Death of Louis XIV). It’s contemporary this time unlike his previous historically set films.

Pacifiction has long – possibly overlong – unexplained scenes, especially the opening nightclub scene. “Politics is a nightclub” Du Rollet comments and the meaning of many scenes becomes clearer later. Cinematography (by Artur Tort) is stunning: particularly spectacular is the long scene where a convoy of pleasure craft ride massive waves at a surfing competition where Du Rollet, involved in everything as usual, is a judge, riding pillion on a jet ski. Elsewhere, the screen breathes heat.

Magimel is on screen during the entire lengthy film. His performance in this ambiguous role is superb. Du Rollet is an intriguing central character. We never find out his first name. He clearly appreciates the beauty of the paradise he has made his own but he also realises his unimportance despite the role he plays and that he may be impotent to prevent the despoiling (to use Michael Gove’s word) of paradise by governments or even its destruction, intended to demonstrate what a government may be prepared to do as a deterrent to others, according to the Admiral.

Pacifiction has polarised critical opinion since its premiere at Cannes last year.. It’s either boring or mesmerising: it’s about nothing or everything. The environment, post-colonialism, corruption, avarice, the complex character and role of Du Roller himself? I still can’t get it out of my mind. Or unsee its beautiful images.

Pacifiction premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 21 April 2023 in the UK.

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