The Movie Waffler New to MUBI - PACIFICTION | The Movie Waffler


France's High Commissioner to Tahiti is confronted by rumours of nuclear testing returning to the area.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Albert Serra

Starring: Benoît Magimel, Pahoa Mahagafana, Marc Susini, Matahi Pambrun, Alexandre Melo, Sergi López

Pacifiction poster

I'll tell you something about Pacifiction, big mouth auteur Albert Serra's (not a pejorative: I love big mouth filmmakers) latest epic set within the political-cultural context of the French Polynesian island of Tahiti: it doesn't half capture that feeling of being on holiday by mistake. That creeping sense of being in an unfamiliar, yet beautiful, location where you don't fit in, and, worse, are surrounded by people elusive and strange; that out of sync sensation. Such queasy alienation, of being a stranger in paradise, characterises Serra's film. Reviews of Pacifiction have referred to the film as Lynchian (used for once not as an idle adjective for "odd," more as a fitting allusion to how both filmmakers have a way of centring on something entirely quotidian and making it seem like the most significant and beguiling thing on the planet), but the real influence here is the great author JG Ballard, and his singular visions of gated communities and luxurious spaces full of rich ex-pats and their deep seated ennui: microcosms of lazy evil, listless sex and bored indulgence.

Pacifiction review

Tahiti is itself an estranged territory. Annexed from the other side of the world by the French in 1880 with the existing culture long since suffocated by missionaries, the languages spoken today are both French and the indigenous Reo Tahiti, which has stubbornly refused to die following governmental attempts at suppression. Predictably, wealth inequality is acute in modern Tahiti too, which squares with the archipelago's history of exploitation: a Chinese ancestry endures following the Cantonese who were brought over as cheap plantation workers in the nineteenth century. In Pacifiction, Artur Tort's photography duly picks out the deep waves, palm trees and shimmering swimming pools which constitute the accepted iconography of this tropical island, but, crucially, we view the landscape subjectively: through windows, the cabin of a plane, as if the hazed island is confining its populace of ex-pats and passers-through. In the film's stand out sequence, we witness the dizzying sight of boats big and small teetering on magnificently towering waves: a powerfully cinematic experience wherein Serra renders the open space of paradise as sinister and constricted.

Pacifiction review

Pacifiction's action returns throughout to a seedy night club where barely dressed native staff serve lurid cocktails, bungs are shared, and mutually advantageous relationships forged. Presiding over the convivial debauchery is haut-commissaire De Roller (Benoît Magimel), glad-handing, omniscient and half in love with the club choreographer Shannah (Pahoa Mahagafanau). It's not a bad life as De Roller swans about in a nice linen suit, leching the young dancers who perform the Ori Tahiti for tourists (itself a real-life bone of cultural contention, with the past powers that be banning the dance's characteristically gluteal movements, which are repurposed today as geegaw authenticity). Problem is that De Roller is not only coming to the end of his tenure at the island and all the easy luxury it entails, but also that as his office comes to a close there are menacing signs that the French are planning to use the region for nuclear testing. Sacrebleu!

Such plot points, however, are stretched out over a very languid 2 hours and 45 minutes. As we follow De Roller executing the sort of seedy business you'd expect a genial suit benefitting from bureaucratic imperialism to be involved in, Pacifiction is perhaps not so much a hang out movie but a hang-in-there movie. Half pressured by the locals, half conscientiously, De Roller follows up the ominous appearance of a submarine miles offshore. Yet, confronting a crocodile-smiling official about the island's concerns, De Roller is just dismissively promised tickets to a soon to open casino. Part of the film's domineering ennui is the suggestion of De Roller's superfluity, of his empty figurehead status upon the island as far as both the natives and the authorities are concerned. Accordingly, the film insidiously affects a disorientating aura of "derealisation," a feeling that if things are not quite unreal, then they are empty, and completely without meaning or excitement. In an astonishing sequence, a topless female DJ in an elevated booth plays droning late night techno to a neon lit swimming pool and a small audience of a man choking a sex worker, actions watched impassively by De Roller from his balcony above (swimming pools and balconies: a Ballardian lexicon).

Pacifiction review

On imdb trivia it reports that about 500 hours were shot during Pacifiction's production, with Serra extoling that digital allows for an abundance of footage to work with in post-production. This approach tallies with the resultant mien of Pacifiction; moments occur here in louche intermittence whereas a sensation of listlessness, a lack of defined purpose, defines the experience. Like that bad holiday, I was relieved when it was over, but the strange atmosphere and sinister ambience of Pacifiction proves as difficult to shake off as jet lag.

Pacifiction is on MUBI UK now.

2023 movie reviews