THE STORY – On an island in French Polynesia, the Haut-Commissaire, a man with a turbulent naturalness and high diplomacy, lives between the highest echelons of politics and the lowest social stratum of his co-citizens. Conflict as a way of life will lead him to take reckless decisions against his political status.
THE CAST – Benoît Magimel
THE TEAM – Albert Serra (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 165 Minutes
If there’s one thing that Albert Serra’s “Pacifiction” does well, it’s capturing the feeling of being on a tropical island. It can be lovely – lying down in the hot sun, the air thick with the smell of the sea, and every once in a while, a nice breeze cooling you off. But Serra goes several steps too far, giving the whole two-and-three-quarter hours the languid pacing of an extremely humid day. Watching “Pacifiction” is a chore, a deathly slow, ponderously heavy slog through a political allegory that confounds the viewer at every turn.
What story there is involves political intrigue in colonialist French Polynesia, centered around De Roller (Benoît Magimel), the High Commissioner of the island who is clearly corrupt in both his political and personal dealings. When rumors start spreading that there is a submarine nearby that will resume France’s nuclear testing program, De Roller works his connections and plays politics as hard as he can in an effort to save himself at least, but quickly finds himself in over his head. Or is he even wilier than everyone else?
This has all the makings of a great plot for a political thriller, but nothing is thrilling about it. Serra is an art house devotee, and “Pacifiction” is as art house as a film can get: The characters speak in philosophical circles, the pace is deathly slow, and every shot has a shroud of pretentiousness over it so thick that it suffocates everything else, but at least the cinematography is gorgeous. Serra definitely thinks he is saying something extremely profound about colonialist politics and government in general, but whatever he’s saying is so obscured by the layers of symbolism and obfuscation that it gets lost. The slothlike pacing and long running time only add to what a miserable experience it is to watch the film.
Thankfully, Serra has an ace up his sleeve in Magimel, who is so damn charismatic that you can’t stop watching him, even if you have no clue what he’s doing or why. The slicked-back hair, cream-colored suit, and dark glasses make for quite a look, one that walks the line of being a government official and an island-dweller almost as perfectly as De Roller does himself. He’s quite a character, and Magimel perfectly mixes smarminess and genuineness in a way that feels exactly like a small-time politician doing what he can to ensure he stays in power while having to do as little work as possible. It’s an excellent performance, but it’s hard enough to care about someone so venal in any film, let alone in a film that is so intent on keeping its plot opaque that it’s nearly impossible to tell what’s actually happening in any given scene.
Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh. After all, pretentious people need films, too, and maybe someone with vaster knowledge of French colonialism will find more to latch onto here. They might say that it luxuriates in the thick humidity and slow pace of island life, whereas I would say that even calling the pacing “languid” is probably too charitable. Besides, good films can speak to anyone, even (and perhaps especially) when they don’t have all the references the film’s director and/or writer had when making it. “Pacifiction” does not care about audience members who are not on its intellectual level. While it’s certainly nice to see a film that is clearly proud to be smart, especially in a time when so many films are pre-digested for optimal audience consumption, that does not mean that watching it is an enjoyable, or even intellectually invigorating, experience. It’s just intellectually exhausting.