In French Polynesia, High Commissioner De Roller (Benoît Magimel) manages the delicate tensions between islanders and the establishment, moving through society’s strata. Writer-director Albert Serra’s latest is a hazy fever dream of post-colonialist politics and ambition that, in its final minutes, lurches into apocalyptic mania.
Clad in a white linen suit and sunglasses, and perpetually sporting a downturned grin, De Roller is like the manifestation of political schmooze. We first encounter him in an informal meeting with islanders, concerned by rumours that the French government are planning to resume the nuclear testing conducted between the 1960s and 1990s, and which caused horrendous cancers in many people who lived in the Pacific Islands. De Roller has an instant, easy rapport with the group, setting them at ease that should the rumours be true, he will oppose any testing, before the conversation quickly turns to the construction of a casino and a celebratory party.
Meanwhile, at the local hotel where De Roller appears to conduct most of his business, he is in a relationship of sorts with one of the hotel’s employees, Shannah (Pahoa Mahagafanau), who also seems to be colluding with De Roller in his political shenanigans. A Portuguese diplomat’s documents go missing while he is staying at the hotel, which may or may not be connected to De Roller, or to the rumoured testing. Morton (Sergi López), who owns a nightclub that seems to become ever more surreal every time we visit it, is also found passed out drunk in his hotel room; De Roller plies him with more drink before telling a nurse, ‘nothing but water for him’. It is almost impossible to get a grip on what De Roller is or isn’t involved with or what his angle is in playing various figures off on one another. One often suspects that De Roller doesn’t know half the time, either.
That all of the film’s recurring locations – the hotel, Morton’s club – are transitory spaces, is key: Pacifiction presents a world without a centre, without permanency. Cinematographer Artur Tort shoots most scenes at a distance, creating at once a sense of surveillance and paranoia but also underscoring that lack of a centre by keeping us at a distance: even medium shots and close ups are often shot with long lenses, which coupled with the haze of Tort’s incredibly soft lighting, creates a dreamlike unreality that only intensifies as the films rolls through its epic 165 minutes, tumbling deeper into a surreal, febrile slumber, a post-colonialist fever dream of sexual exploitation, deranged naval Admirals and exhausted European power.
At the non-centre of the film is De Roller, a truly amoral figure, not a person but a mirror that reflects back the unbalance of the world. His dealings with island elders, diplomats or senior political leaders have all the hallmarks of Machiavellian ambition and power-mongering, but he never seems to do anything with it. In fact, De Roller is inert, observing only without action and in so doing holding everyone else still too. Power is often said to be a force that moves through individuals and groups: in that sense De Roller functions somewhat like an insulator, preventing its conduction from one source to another. Like silt on the bottom of a stagnant pond, power has settled, but, Serra suggests, this is not its natural state.
Power is a disruptor, and what greater disruptor than catastrophe? Pacifiction ends on the suggestion of apocalypse, with the Admiral (Marc Susini) essentially filling the role of Colonel Kurtz, yet in rolling credits before his mad plan can be enacted, Serra denies us the catharsis even of the unthinkable. We are left instead with the restless nightmare of waning power that won’t release its grip, and in its refusal, pulls us all down in its death grip into the somnambulant depths.