Pacifiction (2022)

There are a few filmmakers who actively work to hone their craft, but even after producing several works, we can’t quite figure out how history is going to remember them. Albert Serra is the current embodiment of this principle – watching his films, we are never sure whether we are witnessing the continued development of a truly extraordinary artist, or the ramblings of a delusional crackpot who managed to get enough funding to venture into the furthest corners of the world to satiate his artistic cravings, which occur somewhere between perverse and ethereal, depending on how you look at the general principles of his films. One point that is never contended is how Serra is a true disruptor – he doesn’t just break the roles, he sets them aflame, using the ashes and charred fragments to fuel his own bizarre interests, and the stories that are embedded within them. He has crafted a handful of exceptional films, each one of them being works that occur at the intersection between political history and social satire. His most recent effort is Pacifiction (alternatively known as Tourment sur les îles), a film which sees him looking at a more contemporary setting, that of French Polynesia (heavily implied to be Tahiti, but the film itself keeps this quite ambigious), focusing on the experiences of a wealthy bureaucrat who finds himself growing increasingly more bewildered by the sinister atmosphere that lingers over this island like a neon-tinted cloud, which isn’t helped by the fact that he spends most of his time cavorting with other members of the elite in smoke-filled nightclubs and on dimly-lit beaches, peering towards an ocean that may quite possibly be hiding destructive weapons aiming to exploit the natural beauty of this idyllic island as part of the continued colonial project, all of which forms the foundation of this disquieting and very odd psychological drama that skirts every possible genre in its frequent pursuit for answers to some of the most impenetrable questions, both past and present.

The first aspect of Pacifiction that we need to acknowledge is how this is a film driven by atmosphere more than anything else. Serra has established himself as a filmmaker whose vision is defined by his frequent refusal to adhere to traditional storytelling structure. Postmodernism is defined as “incredulity towards metanarrative”, and there are few examples of this more effective than through his continual non-adherence to the well-worn conventions of political and social standards, which are all thrown into complete disarray throughout this film, which is searching for something that is both indescribable and elusive, making Serra’s quest to answer certain questions both admirable and foolish. He is leaping into foreign waters (both narratively and quite literally, as we see throughout the film) and exploring a world that may be seen as paradise, but contains dark secrets drawn from the past. Considering the depth of concepts he is exploring, it’s not surprising that Serra would focus more on establishing a particular mood rather than marinading in details, since these would only further complicate an already aloof and standoffish film, which becomes far more intriguing the more we are drawn to its ambiguities. Pacifiction is a terrificexample of a film where the more time we spend with these characters and their surroundings, the less we understand. The story is impenetrable and strange, and only increases in its internal abstraction as the story progresses – the more we know, the less we understand, with the inverse being just as applicable. Justification of its choices for the sake of narrative clarity is not necessary in a film like this – the fluidity of Serra’s dialogue contrasted with countless unforgettable images creates a powerful and captivating atmosphere in which many different conversations are conducted, each one vague in nature, but undeniably insightful, and the expectation that every aspect of a film needs to make sense is dismissed from the first moments, in which we are immediately immersed in this strange but entrancing existential drama.

There are quite simply far too many themes embedded in Pacifiction to even offer the most surface-level analysis of its major ideas – but if there was ever a filmmaker who could effectively exploit our willingness to leap into the unknown under the assumption that everything will eventually make sense, it would be Serra, who importantly never promises the viewer that anything will be resolved, and we as the audience simply need to surrender to the fact that not everything has to make sense or find a satisfying conclusion (in fact, the lack of a solid ending with elaborate and logical explanations can be an exceptional narrative tool when used correctly), but that the experience of seeing these images projected in such a thought-provoking and nuanced manner will only create a more intriguing atmosphere in which we are invited to explore the surroundings, albeit while still exercising some degree of caution, since we are never sure what is lurking just out of view, which creates a heightened sense of tension that serves the film exceptionally well. Pacifiction is a film that luxuriates in the grotesque decadence of the wealthy class in comparison to the impoverished subjects that they supposedly represent, and as the film progresses, we see the balance of power gradually shift – perhaps not in a literal sense (since those in servitude never manage to break the shackles of the past, and the people with power only increase their stranglehold on the culture the more time they spend on this island), but rather in the psychological space. It works as a vivid and unsettling demonstration of exquisitely curated paranoia, where Serra is placing the viewer in a position where we are forced to confront certain issues that may not even be that applicable to us, but rather serve to provoke thought and reflection on our place in history, regardless of which side of the social and cultural divide we occupy. It offers an unsettling and almost repulsive depiction of human debauchery, each scene contributing to the growing sense of unease we feel when seeing these characters interact, both in terms of the specific content of these social exchanges, and the broader, more worrying socio-cultural implications that Serra explores with increasing ambiguity.

Despite its sprawling and intentionally confusing depiction of social conventions and the darker side of colonialism, Pacifiction is primarily a film about humanity, particularly the more insidious details from which it is normally formed. It’s a character-based story, and Serra utilizes an ensemble drawn from several different countries to create this striking cultural tapestry. At the heart of the film is a spirited performance from Benoît Magimel, who serves as the audience surrogate, a representative of France sent to this island on what appears to be a routine diplomatic visit, but which eventually turns into an exercise in suppressing the paranoia that comes about through a combination of substance-fueled debauchery and a growing sense of despair that emerges through his gradual realization that not everything around him is what it seems. It’s a magnificent and very effective performance that anchors the film and gives it a very human perspective, which was vitally important, considering the number of complex themes interwoven into every frame of the film.  Magimel is officially in the stage of his career where he is playing the roles Gérard Depardieu would have taken on a few decades ago – vaguely repulsive, unsettling representatives of the faceless bureaucracy, dealing with their own personal demons while trying to survive through a range of challenges they inadvertently are responsible for creating, even if entirely indirectly. Magimel abandons his previous attempts to play likeable but conflicted protagonists, and instead actively embraces the coldhearted, insidious nature of this character, who is undeniably one of the darkest roles he has played in an oddly prolific career. He is the most appropriate kind of character to lead this film, acting as our guide through this increasingly terrifying and uncanny version of an island paradise, representing the faceless colonialists that take advantage of these natural resources and their people, but find themselves hopelessly lost when it comes to making their escape, which we soon discover is almost impossible once your entire national identity has become entrenched in the supposed wealth that comes with the colonial project. Much like every other aspect of the film, Magimel’s performance (as well as those from the supporting cast) are ambigious and challenging, which only emphasizes the outright brilliance of Serra’s vision, and his refusal to give us answers or many of this story any easier to comprehend.

Beyond the themes that serve as the undercurrent of the film, Pacifiction is as much a directorial achievement as it is a remarkable piece of writing. Serra is a tremendously gifted filmmaker, and his ability to find the perfect balance between storytelling prowess and visual poetry is one of the reasons he is at the peak of his craft at the moment. However, the fact that he constructed a brilliant film doesn’t make it any easier to describe, especially since there’s an elusive and polarizing set of techniques he utilizes, which are designed to keep us at a distance for the entire film – and when dealing with a work that borders on three hours in length, its a long time to endure some of the most off-kilter, abstract filmmaking imaginable. This is not the suave, sophisticated satire some may expect (although there are a few moments of darkly comical humour peppered in between certain scenes), but rather a deceptive series of increasingly disturbing tableaux that move with rhythmic madness, making use of dreamlike imagery, which contrasts the bleak and harrowing depiction of this world. A lot of the impact made by this film comes in the form of the non-verbal channel – it’s a film that contains a lot of dialogue (especially since it is mostly constructed out of conversations), but its most interesting moments come when movement and colour are utilized as a method of storytelling. There are scenes executed without words that provide us with a deep sense of existential dread, which is an incredible achievement when we consider the scope of the story, and how the director manages to weave together so many complex ideas without making a film that is needlessly convoluted. Excess is a useful tool when it is done well, and with so many scenes that depict either the undeniable beauty of the natural world (an extended sequence that takes place in the middle of the ocean is one of the most striking cinematographic achievements in years) or the darker and more grotesque side of this ideal, where animalistic desire and pure chaos reign supreme, this is a work of unimpeachable artistic anarchy, which is about parred for the course when it comes to Serra, whose entire career has been defined by pushing boundaries, both narratively and visually, Pacifiction being arguably his most impressive work in this regard, or at least the one that manages to be the most daring.

Pacifiction is an impossible film to describe, at least if we look at it from a very traditional perspective, which is the first step towards failing to understand this film and its many intricate nuances and the elements that make it such a singular work. To fully grasp the scope of this film, we have to look at what Serra was trying to achieve here – he’s not one who necessarily offers us much context, which can be either perilous or liberating for the viewer, depending on how much you enjoy the art of being continuously confused by a bewildering array of images and conversations divorced from any clear time or space. This is the foundation for the film, and the reason it is a truly polarizing masterpiece, a work of unimpeachable brilliance that playfully deconstructs the entire narrative structure, exposing us to a strange but alluring depiction of reality, one driven by an almost barbaric sense of lust, whether it be for carnal satiation or that of power, which is a recurring theme throughout this film. Pacifiction is a slow-burning social and cultural epic, and one that is fervent in its belief that it needs to exceed being merely a satire on imperialism, going in pursuit of something far deeper and more complex. It treads razor-thin boundary between luxury and excess, finding creative ways to portray this story without becoming bound by the temptation to just show the spoilt lives of the rich and influential in contrast to the working class that are forced to serve them (which is in itself a fascinating theme that could have been subjected to an entire film on its own, but is here just one of the many components of this narrative), and instead employs a method of placing us in an unsettling environment, from which there is likely very little chance of escape. It is a bizarre and disquieting glimpse into the more malicious recesses of the postcolonial psyche, as seen through the eyes of a man who embodies modern imperialism and its terrifying realities, where it arrives not in masses of gun-wielding soldiers, but rather in the form of the gold-capped grimaces of bureaucrats, who hide behind dark sunglasses and impeccable white suits (which act as their armour, defending them from being mistaken as one of their subjects), and who genuinely believe they have the people’s best interests at heart, which is perhaps the most terrifying aspect of them all. Raw, complex, bold and unsightly, Pacifiction is a singular work of pure artistic ambition, exploring the darker side of paradise and proving that there is perpetual brutality beneath the most beautiful landscapes, the ghosts of the past haunting this island and the people who inhabit it.


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