FICTIONS OF EMPIRE abound in adventure, heroism, spectacle. Swashbuckling swordsmen. Precocious war correspondents. Worldly white men clad in Indigenous garb. Out there, in those wild lands, the promise of transcendence beckons. She is a femme fatale, thrilling you with her darkness. With its postcardlike images of Tahiti, Albert Serra’s Pacifiction offers exotic reveries of its own: pastel-dipped cabanas and bamboo chaises straight out of Emmanuelle; tan natives, seductively deshabille in headdresses and straw skirts of the kind seen in later Gauguins. Yet even as he renders these imperial fantasies with hypnotic precision the Catalonian filmmaker seems to neuter them of their habitual vigor and virility. The island’s beauty is forceful to the point of feeling surreal, artificial—suspiciously so.
Pacifiction starts at sea. The length of a cargo ship stacked high with Skittle-colored containers passes through a static frame; behind this vessel, craggy island peaks rest below sunset’s orange glow. A placid group of French Navy troopers arrive by speedboat, disembark, and head to the club. It’s called Paradise Night, a favorite among the island’s Frenchmen, a lounge awash in magenta lights that register the night in slow-mo, at pace with the desultory tiki tunes heard perpetually in the distance. Enter Benoît Magimel’s Monsieur De Roller, the High Commissioner to French Polynesia. A vestige of old-school European imperialism, he’s wearing a white suit like Fitzcarraldo, though he’s cooler and more poised than the tempestuous Klaus Kinski—something like Dean Stockwell’s mystery man in Blue Velvet, at least at first. De Roller’s work involves a kind of manipulation that feels weightless and banal. Such is the opacity of power, which is wielded by men who prefer to watch. De Roller is introduced as a figure slinking in and out of patches of darkness at the club, observing those around him, and presumably gathering intel. As the film progresses, he sees less and less.
A vast conspiracy takes shape, inspired by a very real incident in the history of French colonialism. In the second half of the twentieth century, the hundreds of islands that comprise French Polynesia were the sites of nuclear tests conducted by the French military, which subjected thousands of inhabitants to radiation poisoning. Serra’s Tahiti exists within a collapsed timescale in which the past is connected to some unspecified future, with gaudy tropical clichés and cockfighting-inspired folk dances intermingling with synthesizer grooves, private jets, and Mission Impossible–style gadgets. As the film’s title suggests, it is fiction that intervenes to “tell an impossible story and to amplify the impossibility of its telling,” per Saidiya Hartman. Indeed, Pacifiction is a story of historical barbarism enacted by invisible perpetrators, entities who’ve obscured their relationship to brutality—who produce it shruggingly, without the dignity of intention. For De Roller, the cockfighting dance draws its convulsive beauty from the palpable way in which it summons the idea of violence. It’s an exoticizing observation, and terribly passé, but it is also the interpretation of a man blind to the elusive nature of modernity’s savagery—as well as his own. As whisperings of resumed nuclear testing filter in, De Roller finds himself increasingly lost. A passport-less bureaucrat stumbles into his terrain, his motives ambiguous. An American attends De Roller’s meeting with native representatives as a silent observer. Local women assemble daily by the shore and paddle out to some destination in the middle of the ocean—to pleasure restless soldiers stationed in a submarine, perhaps? De Roller scours the waters by night, desperate to locate this hidden facility. Nothing. We see him surrounded by black, caught in a disorienting void, an old figurehead left in the dark.
Serra is drawn to this emptiness. His work takes grand moments in Western European civilization and drains them of the narrative momentum upon which official histories hinge. See Jean-Pierre Léaud’s body rot slowly in The Death of Louis XIV (2016), or Casanova in The Story of My Death (2013), idling away his days in what is practically a mausoleum before the arrival of Dracula, the incarnation of nineteenth-century Romanticism, throws reality into a crepuscular abyss. Similarly, Pacifiction is an imperial spectacle devoid of the spectacular, its thrills blanketed by a hazy atmosphere of dread.
Paradise Night, the Tahitian boîte, is tawdry, brimming with sensuous surface gratifications: the kind of decadence associated with the end of an era wherein contradictions reign supreme. Gilded shit. Decay eclipsed by decor. De Roller is overcome by Kurtzian paranoia as the film shifts to a bleaker color palette and the susurration of insects and foliage creates an eerily delicate soundscape. Meanwhile, the bar’s native employees shuffle back and forth, space out, and make small talk. Topless women saunter around listlessly, manning DJ stations, smoking cigarettes. They’re bored—so, so bored. Typical Serra, who here does away with the sensationalism of “local” entertainment in the vein of the Vietnam war epic’s go-go bars.
The exception is the mesmerizing Shannah, played by the trans actress Pahoa Mahagafanau. A hotel employee who eventually rises to the position of De Roller’s assistant, Shannah is a veritable Sphinx—and I don’t mean this as a feminine cliché. True, she is impeccably groomed, her beauty statuesque, her manner both inviting and withholding. These are less markers of womanly mystique than proof of her formidable intelligence and political savvy, which are not unlike those of her eventual boss and the dodgy men in his milieu who keep meaning at bay. Shannah is always watching, always thinking—about what? Jamaica Kincaid writes that everyone is a native of somewhere, and that natives everywhere yearn to feel alive somewhere else. Not all natives can be tourists—there are economic barriers, of course—which means they envy “your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.” Shannah could easily be one such envious native. Yet she never looks bored.
— Beatrice Loayza
Pacifiction is currently playing in select US theaters.