A favorite at Cannes for several years now, self-styled arthouse rockstar Albert Serra has had a dependable home at the festival since his (narrative) debut feature Honor de Cavalleria back in 2006. That film, a minimalist reimagining of Don Quixote starring nonprofessional actors and rendered in surprisingly lush digital textures, established Serra’s filmmaking predilections immediately, his subsequent work holding fast to similar principles of style and theme. Founded on an obvious aesthetic contrast that subjects esteemed figures of the 17th/18th centuries to the unforgiving gaze of high-definition digital cinematography, Serra’s project thus far has been to detangle history from reality, reality from romanticism, and so forth. Seemingly a shallow well to draw so frequently from, he has spun quite a few variations on this fairly simple premise a few times over now to great success, most recently with 2019’s lush, hedonistic Liberté (which won Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar that year), and, before that, Death of Louis XIV (also a Cannes selection, out of competition) and Story of My Death (top prize at Locarno in 2013 when the festival was still competitive). Clearly a director with significant clout on the European festival circuit, Serra has nevertheless been kept to sidebar selections and out of Cannes’ more classically-minded competition until this year, when his latest feature Pacifiction was announced as a last-minute addition to the lineup.
And indeed, as it currently stands, Pacifiction is the most comp-friendly title in Serra’s filmography, as well as an apparently dramatic break from the characteristics that have come to define it. Though not a total departure from his cinematic interests, Pacifiction at times comes off as a conscious realignment toward the values of the competition programmers, adopting a more conventional narrative structure and approach to staging, as well as swapping out his high contrast digital tableaux for a hazy 35mm look (though actually shot on three Canon Black Magic Pockets running simultaneously), framed in scope aspect ratio. But, what initially appears to be radical departure for this director quickly reveals itself to be of a piece with the logic that has previously dictated his filmmaking approach, this time using celluloid’s nostalgic, surreal qualities as a point of contrast to Pacifiction’s grim depiction of contemporary, bureaucratically-managed colonialism. Taking place in “Overseas country of France” French Polynesia, mostly on Tahiti, Pacifiction’s playful title alludes to both the film’s setting and its protagonist’s general role in the action.
The Piano Teacher’s Benoît Magimel leads the cast as the island’s Haut-Commissaire, a man of substantial political power sent to manage the populace on behalf of France and who fancies himself a benign actor, a pragmatist able to serve the interests of his native country without betraying those native to this overseas colony. Serra casts doubt on this ostensible balancing act early on, introducing the film’s looming conflicts in a meeting between the Haut-Commissaire and Tahitian representatives who express distress over their banning from a newly opened casino at the behest of a local religious leader, as well as a persistent rumor that the French government has secretly resumed nuclear testings on nearby islands despite vowing to discontinue the practice decades prior. Wielding the brutal power of tax dollars against religious leadership solves the casino issue rather efficiently, but the more alarming concerns of an encroaching military/nuclear threat are waved off as against the colonizer’s best interests. Still, the rumor gains traction as an ominous submarine is spotted lurking the shores at night, and as Pacifiction’s methodically paced 165-minute runtime spills out, the film’s focus shifts to the tension between the Haut-Commissaire and his self-enforced obliviousness, his attentions torn between production details at a scuzzy Lola-esque nightclub, and the numerous sinister foreign agents suddenly inserting themselves in local business.
Like the bulk of Serra’s output, Pacifiction is superficially readable; as in, one could likely guess the outcome and general thematic revelations in store just by glancing over its plot synopsis. Yet, the overtness of Serra’s metaphor isn’t really an issue as it’s rarely been previously, forgoing writerly coyness in favor of a more emotionally resonant sensory experience. Entrusting frequent cinematographer Artur Tort to shepherd in this vision, Pacifiction adheres to a cool, magenta color palette (presumably inspired by the aforementioned Lola, probably Querelle too) with strict consistency, casting the players in a soothing rosy sheen, unbalanced by a dread-inducing score and rumbling soundscape. Magimel excels in a reserved, cagey performance (straddling Ben Gazzara in Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Saint Jack) serving as avatar for the contemporary liberal middle manager type — charismatic, politically savvy, and very desperate to maintain a faux status quo. In keeping with the recent bout of smart, stylish French cinema (though hailing from Catalonia, Serra’s recent films have been very Franco-centric) contextualizing the building fury with the failings of the Western liberal state (see, for example, Zombi Child, which makes similar use of a magenta font color, and last year’s France), Pacifiction is just about as good as any of those. Even if some of his voice is more obscured than in features past, this latest effort still reflects a pretty clean aesthetic reorientation that suggests we’ve yet to see the full breadth of Serra’s design.
Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 3.