‘Pacifiction’ Comes Infuriatingly Close To Being A Tahitian-Set, ‘Casablanca’-Esque Spy Drama

Pacifiction, written and directed by Albert Serra, won best actor and best cinematography at the César Awards, basically France’s equivalent of the Oscars, and comes to the US puffed with various laurel-bounded film festival honors and glowing pull quotes from the likes of AO Scott and Cahiers du Cinema (the latter calling it “the best film of the year.”), as it rolls out to various arthouses.

In some ways I understand the praise. It’s easy to describe the movie that Pacifiction could be in a way that sounds thrilling, especially combined with stills depicting waves at Teahupo’o and sexy, South Pacific idyll. Pacifiction is set in and shot on location in Tahiti, which was enough to draw me in alone. Yet there’s a gulf between Pacifiction‘s promise and the crushing burden it is to actually sit through — which is numbing and banal in a way that doesn’t inspire flowery prose. It mostly inspires curmudgeonly grumbling (foreshadowing…).

Scarcely have I seen a movie with such an intriguing premise and set of influences that also seemed so determined to put me to sleep. Pacifiction plays like a heady combination of John Le Carré, Graham Green, Paul Gauguin and the droning of a leaf blower. It’s 162 minutes long and “languid” doesn’t come close to describing the monotonous pacing.

Benoît Magimel, he of the best acting César, plays De Roller, the “high commissioner” of Tahiti appointed by France. His job, as he seems to envision it, is to travel about the island mingling with rich foreigners, poor locals, tourists, and gadflies alike, a sort of benevolent, bloviating presence who gets to borrow the prestige of the mother country to enrich the locals, in the most paternalistic way possible. All while naturally availing himself of the elevated social status that comes with the position. Essentially, a preening bureaucrat, though not necessarily an evil one. Magimel is brilliant in a wonderfully nuanced role.

One major complication to this cushy gig is the arrival of a louche French admiral and some pale marines, which spark rumors of a French submarine cruising the local waters, and with it the possibility of resumed nuclear testing. Indeed, nothing puts a finer point on the absurdity of colonialism like the world’s great powers choosing to test their most destructive weapons in their most picturesque territories, leveling paradise to put up superfund sites (Moruroa in French Polynesia being basically the French equivalent of Bikini Atoll).

Other players in the drama include De Roller’s trans woman mistress, Shannah (Pahoa Mahagafanau, in a wildly-compelling performance), a horny visiting author, a local activist, and a handful of various other shady characters, including a drunk hotel guest who wakes up from a stupor screaming about a stolen passport in Portuguese. They all congregate at Morton’s, a smoky tiki joint where the local service staff wear skimpy, provocative outfits in order to perpetuate the myth of Tahiti as the libertine paradise that attracted sketchy Europeans for hundreds of years, from Gauguin to Brando.

Again, on paper this all sounds incredible, to the point that I almost just reconvinced myself to watch it again. I can’t think of a movie I’d click “play” on faster than a Polynesian Casablanca about shady spooks, bumbling colonials, corrupt officials, and slimy sex tourists set in Tahiti. Yet just when Pacifiction seems like it’s about to coalesce into that, rewarding our patience after 90 or so minutes of numbingly repetitive dialogue and pointlessly long takes, it plays itself out with 40 or so more minutes more of long-take visual noodling, complete with droning score.

This movie takes an incredibly sexy premise and stages it in the driest way imaginable, almost entirely score and music free for much of its lengthy run time, with characters monologuing for 15 and 20 minutes on end. At the one-hour 53-minute mark, two shadowy figures who’ve been lurking on the perimeter for the whole movie get together for what seems like an important dialogue. They speak in English as the subtitles fall away, and say… something. I rewound it four times and I still have no idea.

I understand and appreciate a film that doesn’t hold your hand through every plot point and demand you interpret in just one particular way. But Serra’s choices in Pacifiction seem not just restrained and open for interpretation but deliberately obtuse. Rather than immersing you in the subject matter they all but forced you to consider the construction, to ask “why is he trying to make a romantic subject so dull?”

Other than to inspire generous critics to call this style “meditative” I don’t have a great answer. It also raises the question, why am I even reviewing a movie that maybe 1% of my audience will even see? Because it made me angry, I guess. People wait for the director’s cuts of their favorite films, but I’d love to see a “producer’s cut” of this one.

‘Pacifiction’ is currently playing a handful of big cities. You can see where here. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can read more of his reviews here.