‘Pacifiction’ Review: Trouble in Paradise

At sunset and at daybreak, the light in Tahiti glows orange and pink, as fragrant and moist as freshly cut fruit. “Pacifiction,” the sixth feature by the Catalan filmmaker Albert Serra, luxuriates in the Polynesian twilight, as if the camera’s lens could absorb humidity and make it visible.

The movie unfolds over more than two and a half hours at a languorous pace, through episodes that sometimes seem linked by the serendipitous logic of a dream. At the beginning and the end, a small power boat plies the harbor, carrying French marines under the command of a sad-eyed admiral (Marc Susini). Their presence, in the bars and on the beaches, becomes part of the local atmosphere as well as the catalyst for a plot that connects local politics with geopolitical intrigue.

It’s rumored that France is about to resume nuclear testing around the islands, something that was done frequently from the 1960s to the mid-90s. In the movie’s fictional present day, tensions are rising between Polynesian authorities and the French government, which administers the region as an overseas territory. Mysterious foreigners haunt the tourist hotels. At least one is believed to work for the C.I.A.

At the center of it all is the French high commissioner, a government functionary in tinted glasses and an ice cream suit referred to only by his last name, which is De Roller. Played by Benoît Magimel with shambling delicacy, De Roller is like the French cousin of a character you might find in a Graham Greene novel or a tale by Joseph Conrad. He is a world-weary, somewhat dissolute avatar of colonial power — “a representative of the state” in his own assessment, which sounds both humble and boastful — going to seed in a tropical paradise. He is a diplomat, a fixer, a bon vivant and, thanks to Magimel’s louche charisma, a lost soul whose wandering and dithering carry a hint of pathos.

Though De Roller is in constant motion — by foot, jet ski and prop plane as well as his cream-colored Mercedes — he is a curiously becalmed, passive figure. He listens, lectures, eats and drinks, enjoying the company even of people whom he regards as threats or annoyances. He hangs out backstage with nightclub dancers, lunches with Indigenous leaders and visiting cultural dignitaries and develops a special, possibly romantic relationship with Shannah (Pahoa Mahagafanau), a transgender hospitality worker.

“Pacifiction,” which was filmed in Polynesia in 2021 under the shadow of Covid, is more interested in texture than plot. There is a thriller lurking around the edges of the movie, or perhaps in its subconscious, as if the conspiracies and acts of violence that are sometimes alluded to in De Roller’s conversations were buried in the subtext, just out of view. It suggests John le Carré by way of David Lynch — a feverish and haunting but also wry and meditative rumination on power, secrecy and the color of clouds over water at sunset.

Not rated. In French, with subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes. In theaters.

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