Albert Serra's Pacifiction: An Anti-Moral Tale In Paradise
by Eva Peydró
Albert Serra’s most accomplished film to date, Pacifiction, which premiered in competition at the 75th Cannes Film Festival and was included in the list of the 10 best films of 2022 by the magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, immerses us almost three hours in an atmosphere where suggestion becomes truth and the imagined shapes reality. The absolute of the main character, De Roller, a French government commissioner in Tahiti, played by the French actor Benoît Magimel with an ambiguity full of nuances, serves as a framework for what in the hands of any other director could have been a post-colonial political thriller, but in the case of the Catalan is an expanded and perfected support to convey the aesthetic and thematic obsessions that he has embodied in his previous works.
A brief review of his filmography will be sufficient to prove it: In Quixotic/Honor de Cavelleria (Honor de cavalleria), which was also chosen as one of the ten best films of 2007 by Cahiers du Cinéma, he adapts Cervantes’ masterpiece with the utmost stylisation, that is to say with absolute minimalism, to introduce us to one of the stylistic hallmarks of his cinema, the moroseness, the rhythm of cadence that seems so slow as to be invisible, and where the viewers are confronted with a demand for active participation, always gratifying if he they are capable of perceiving in this apparent inaction an internal development, with a precise code of its own. In 2008, Birdsong (El cant dels ocells) brings to the screen a deep-rooted popular theme, the journey of the Three Wise Men to meet the newborn Jesus, which takes its title from a Catalan Christmas carol, made famous by the cellist Pau Casals.
In 2013, Serra filmed Story of My Death (Història de la meva mort), a hypothetical encounter between a real character, Casanova, and a fictional one, Count Dracula. Next, the Sun King diptych, filmed in two consecutive years and consisting of The Death of Louis XIV (La mort de Lluís XIV), played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, included in the list of the 10 best films of 2016 by Sight&Sound, and Roi Soleil, starring Lluís Serrat, one of the director’s favourite actors/non-actors, confronts us with the agony of one of the most emblematic characters in history, with undeniable pathos and a progression in the stylistic approach, which gives a significant reinforcement to the formal scheme.
Finally, in Liberty (Liberté), a film adaptation of his own theatrical production, Serra films the true story of Madame de Dumeval, who, together with a group of French libertine nobles, fled the court of Louis XVI to take refuge under the protection of the free-thinking Duke of Walchen, depicting an orgiastic encounter in the darkness of a welcoming and complicit forest.
The line that Albert Serra’s work has followed to reach its culmination (so far) in Pacifiction is evidently clear and progressive, his films have taken up accommodation in non-places (symbolic, imagined, conceptual spaces) in order not to talk about characters drawn from European history nor cultural heritage, thus curiously elaborating a discourse of timeless eloquence that transcends the anecdote, the biographical note or the discussion of facts and acts. The spaces in the director’s films are always a deliberate choice, bringing a necessary meaning to his proposals, to isolate, as if under a microscope, what is most essential.
In this way, the setting, if it is not the message, at least collaborates greatly in communicating it, acting as a pedestal that elevates us above the ground and forces us to decontextualise what we are shown. The possible transcendence of Serra’s films rises above the pillars of the anecdote to surpass it and manage to tell us again and again, with new nuances and resources, our own story.
Pacifiction could be an essay on neo-colonialism, the nuclear threat, the melancholy of a decadent way of life that clings to existence with the self-absorbed nonchalance of someone who feels securely installed in a position of privilege, but it is also a hypnotic and lengthy experience of enormous beauty.
In this co-production between Spain, France, Germany and Portugal, Serra offers us an extraordinary character, updated inheritor of those diplomats and policemen of the lineage of Claude Rains’ Louis Renault. Magimel’s De Roller is a seductive and ambiguous demiurge who meanders in a microcosm and gravitates towards a world as real as it is imagined, and whose style completely mimics the tone of the film.
The commissioner displays his diplomatic talent, his PR skills and his willingness to intervene in all aspects of the island’s social life, as host, consultant, confidant and enforcer, moving with equal ease at a meeting of local activists, a nightclub sofa or a surfing competition.
The background noise of Pacifiction is the unconfirmed rumour of new nuclear tests in Polynesian waters, and it is this uncertainty that permeates the film, condensing all the ambiguity with which the director challenges us throughout. Baptiste Pinteaux’s accurate dialogue, the music by José Robinson and Marc Verdaguer, as well as the beautiful photography by Artur Tort (the film was shot simultaneously with three cameras, in each of its scenes, resulting in 540 hours of footage), envelop us in a mystery as seductive as it is unfathomable, as ambiguous as the revealing character of Shannah, played by Pahoa Mahagafanau, the native who manages to gain De Roller’s trust and represents the third gender in Polynesian tradition, where those known as “mahu”, born male, express themselves and are accepted as women.
Indefinition, uncertainty, confusion reveal that we pretend to approach another reality through an inadequate lens, but only by surrendering and allowing ourselves to be seduced will we be able to understand and this knowledge will force us to take sides. Pacifiction does not pretend to be a moral tale in paradise, but it manages to question paradise with a diachronic perspective that, like a tropical tornado, integrates in its raging turbulence everything that is not firmly anchored in the earth. And it is this maelstrom, underlying here like an imperceptible tremor, that absorbs values, beliefs and moral defects, whose long decay is at best an excessively slow extinction.
© FIPRESCI 2023