Interview: Albert Serra, dir. Pacifiction

Albert Serra is a filmmaker with uncompromising vision. Whether he is reworking Cervantes’ Don Quixote into a distilled cinematic vision with Honour of the Knights (2006), throwing together Dracula and Casanova in the majestic and mischievous Story of My Death (2013), or depicting the eerily atmospheric final days of an aging monarch in The Death of Louis XIV (2015), Serra’s singular perspective shines through.

Serra returned to Cannes last year with the languorous but strangely unnerving Pacifiction, a Tahiti-set slow-burner in which the High Commissioner of the Republic, De Roller (Benoît Magimel), investigates a rumour about French nuclear testing in the region. It’s another strange and absorbing film from the Catalan filmmaker, one with all the narrative hallmarks of a riveting thriller, but a typically subversive and arresting tone.

CineVue’s Ben Nicholson caught up with Serra to discuss the film during its presentation at last year’s BFI London Film Festival.

Ben Nicholson: I’ve seen a quote floating around online in which you refer to the vulgarity of narrative – but most people seem to consider Pacifiction to be your most “narrative” film.

Albert Serra: This is the goal. Try to make a narrative film, but try to apply the qualities of my methodology so that all meaning still appears spontaneously. Even if things need to be a little bit more under control for a plot-orientated film, still, in the end, it will have enough rough – or spontaneous – urgency that it will appear without control. This was the main goal at the beginning. It was parallel to what I did with my previous film, Liberté: Can I apply my system to explicit sex? Can actors hold their own vulnerability even in an outrageous or extreme situation – being naked?  What will happen with the clash of this system and this subject? So here it was similar, and I think it works. At least you see a plot-oriented film that is very different. I think that I touched something a little bit original and that can give some hope, even. If I challenge myself, I think there are a lot of unknown territories to discover and that fits perfectly with my way of working, fits my artistic goals that are always the main thing. It has to be original; it has to be artistically oriented.

At the same time, it can open new horizons – more plot-oriented, with another star, or in an English context. I was very happy that the film was in competition at Cannes because it showed that this was possible, not only to me but to a lot of people. Maybe we can open new little doors without being in the art world or crazy experimental films but just being inside the normal film world. There is still space to create new things and new atmospheres. Here it was especially interesting because it’s contemporary. You know, the historical setting of my previous films also means more homogenous, more closed, even if they were also filled with humour and different tonalities. Here, with the contemporary setting, I think I can expand even more the horizons of mixing tonalities. On one hand, you have a serious film – perhaps with some insightful moments and commentary about humanity, politics, something quite original but dealing with sensations and anguish we share all around the world. But then there is also humour – from my point of view is quite outrageous. Other people, I don’t know; they find it funny, but I don’t know if it’s very well understood, this humour. Still, it’s another layer that is around, if maybe not very clear. Also, the artificiality of the visuals. The completely crazy, non-realistic portrait of an island – ultra-saturated colours, with all the possible cliches from palm trees, waves, and nightclubs, to indigenous people. At the same time, it’s like we’re in a Minnelli film from the 50s, or in a Douglas Sirk melodrama, on the surface. Also, there’s this wild, and terribly mysterious – even for me – way of performance from the actors, especially Magimel, with this hyper-realistic way of acting that I never saw before. He’s a machine-like actor but at the same time extremely rough and spontaneous and also physically fluid, with an extreme naturality. All these together. I think that I arrived at a point where this was possible; it’s an open door to a lot of new things.

BN: I wanted to ask you about the contemporary setting.  Partly, I wondered how you arrived at that decision, but I think more specifically I wondered whether you feel that people are able to be more accepting of some of the other ways that you work when it comes in this package rather than when you’ve worked with a historical setting.

AS: Probably, probably. The thing is that with a historical setting, you have to be a little bit more respectful. It’s a tricky balance when you deal with history and you want to be original – you want to create something of your own, but at the same time, you must be respectful of the subject you are dealing with. If not, you create your own story or you go to the contemporary. When you deal with history – period films – you have to have something personal to say, because if you don’t it will be an academic film. We see this in the UK a lot, when they deal with the historical, they are so respectful that it feels academic because they are scared of betraying the historical truth. When I made The Death of Louis XIV why would I want to portray a Louis XIV that has nothing in common with the real Louis XIV that we know the sources? It makes no sense. So, in period films, everything has to be a little bit more homogenous not to spoil credibility. Here, I was more free – sincerely. I had experience dealing with contemporary subjects, so I knew I could do it, but the big screen, the perfect conditions of sound of image – it imposes on you. I knew that these landscapes of Polynesia would be overwhelming, and I liked that idea, and the idea of talking about our society here, but in Polynesia. If the context of where we go is so imposing, or overwhelming, people forget their own mental reality a little bit, and I think this is very good. If the mind expands in an unknown, or unusual, environment – that it’s not inside the usual frame – the images will be more interesting. In one way or another, people will be contaminated by this purity of purpose and more vulnerable, especially actors. So, I like when we go to these places; I think it helps a lot, at least in my way of shooting.

BN: So, does the film come from the location for you?

AS: Absolutely. Location is very important – they are like actors or costumes. I focus on things that are visible on the screen. When you spend money, it has to be spent on visible things that will appear on the screen. I think location is very important because it gives the atmosphere. In Hollywood, they are able to create real, credible environments, but here you have something you don’t have to make artificially but it creates the same flavour, so why not use it? So, I started by doing a little bit of research on the place and I liked the idea of lost paradise, rotten paradise – this was interesting because of the contrast, the dubious and the dark are things I like. This distortion of the apparently exotic postcard of a nice place. You have the place that will be visually interesting…  and then we have to fill it with shit.

BN: [Laughs] And your very first shot is literally the shit arriving on the shore, when the military boat pulls into the dock, you immediately feel uncomfortable because you understand what’s happening.

AS: Yeah, exactly, because you see that this is not the idealistic US military, and they are not all dressed the same way, and see them as a gang. You already feel that we are in a colonial setup with this army. And I liked the humour of them following the prostitutes on this little boat, spying.

BN: It’s very funny and really horrible and sad, all at once.

AS: Yeah, the dialogue is so funny. But the idea that these prostitutes are really serving the soldiers, and because they are doing violent things with them, maybe one day they will kill them, is so crazy. I like operating in a territory like this, a little bit unknown. The tonality and the atmosphere are quite unique. For example, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a love declaration with the kind of dialogue we have in this film [between Magimel’s De Roller and Pahoa Mahagafanau’s Shannah], it’s surreal but also there’s a sweetness – it’s very, very strange but you fall into it.

BN: What was the process like of working with Benoît Magimel on the character? What did he know about the character before you started?

AS: He’s a wild person. He is very competitive, and he doesn’t care about anything, so whatever I proposed, he said ‘yes.’ Then, at the same time, he’s a little bit lazy so the first take was always the best. It was incredible because, in some scenes, it was clear he didn’t read the script. He had the script but was asking me questions that showed he didn’t read the script. So, I said: ‘Let’s do it with the earpiece. I will give you some sentences and you do it fast. You repeat the sentence, if you make a mistake, you keep on – never look at me.’ Benoît wants to show that he is the best and he’s incredibly talented and gifted for something that, in general, actors are not; he has verbal imagination, so this was great. But he’s in scenes and he doesn’t really know what’s happening. If you don’t know anything, you have to establish, in real-time, what’s going on only with the help of the sentence that, at the same time, you have to repeat. When you are so concentrated, it creates this spectral tonality to your way of acting. It is so extremely organic. It’s a machine-like behaviour, but at the same time, it’s super spontaneous. This has a lively presence, the way he is acting, that you cannot find anywhere else. If you know already what you will do, you know what to communicate with the camera, it’s boring, it’s cliche. Here, it’s impossible to make a cliche, because he has no time even to develop a cliche. The most beautiful thing is that everything is happening up in the link between the earpiece and your brain. It takes a lot of concentration to understand what’s going on, to repeat the sentence, to not make a mistake, and to play the role. It means that whatever you do with the body is totally out of your control. You can stand up without knowing that you stood up. It’s totally fluid. It’s totally natural. It’s fantastic. You cannot find this anywhere else.

BN: That’s really interesting, because in the film you manage to walk this weird line where everything feels very loose, but there is also a sense of paranoia slowly tightening. It feels almost counter-intuitive, but how you’re describing the performance, it is kind of doing both things.

AS: Yeah, yeah. It’s mental and physical, at the same time, but not in the classical way where the mental side and the physical side are a boring unity. No, here, it is disconnected. I will tell you one quick story about a scene with De Roller in a discussion with the local leaders, where they are pushing him to be on their side. We did the first day with the earpiece, and of course, when Magimel was using the earpiece, by the second take, he understood what was going on so didn’t need the same tension. Even if I never repeat the same line, I used variation, still automatic pilot, because he knew how to solve the situation. You can only do it once. You can only be fooled once. So, I said to him that we didn’t need the earpiece now and that he can probably even imagine better dialogue. What he didn’t know was that I prepared a lot with the other guy before Benoit arrived and even gave him the earpiece, secretly. When we started the second day, suddenly, he is answering him very intelligently, very violently, putting him under pressure with good arguments. He didn’t know what to do, because he didn’t have the earpiece and he was surprised. He was vulnerable, hesitating, not knowing what to do or how to react. And, of course, in the film, we used the second take [laughs].

Pacifiction is released in UK cinemas by New Wave on 21 April. Institute of Contemporary Arts currently has a season of Albert Serra films running until 27 April.