What do you want when you already have paradise?
That question looms over Albert Serra’s singularly mysterious cinematic immersion into Tahiti, “Pacifiction.” The indigenous Polynesians living there would likely argue that this paradise hasn’t been theirs in a long time. Serra, the Catalan filmmaker behind such boundary-pushing works of experiential filmmaking as “Honor of the Knights” and “Story of My Death,” is yet another outsider coming to their shores, but he avoids the touristic travel-porn clichés of most movies set in some tropical locale. “Pacifiction” is not a vicarious experience of luxury; it is an experience of life. Set to its own tidal rhythm, it is one of the most beautiful and rigorously introspective movies of this or any year, a film that makes you deeply ponder the fate of humanity itself.
Benoît Magimel plays De Roller, the High Commissioner for French Polynesia, still one of the “overseas territories” ruled from Paris as a vestige of France’s empire. He’s in virtually every one of the 163 minutes that make up “Pacifiction,” and he’s into everything: meeting with activist leaders, twisting the arm of a priest to endorse the opening of a casino, overseeing a surfing contest, giving advice to the dancers at a nightclub, serving as the welcoming committee for a visiting French admiral. He’s all awkward charm, trying to be “one of the people” even as he serves a different master. De Roller wears his white suit, flowered shirt, and horn-rimmed sunglasses like armor: casual enough not to stand out too much in Tahiti but formal enough to show he means business. When an indigenous politician on another island tells him he should embrace the local culture more and wear a pareo, it’s obvious he will never do so. In another place, our High Commissioner would be wearing a pith helmet.
De Roller also becomes something else before long: an amateur detective. That admiral (Marc Susini) who showed up? The rumor is that he’s there because the French government wants to resume nuclear weapons testing nearby, something that, for 30 years ending in 1996, it did about 780 miles southeast of Tahiti. Some of the nearly 200 warheads detonated during that time were even exploded above ground in atmosphere. Let’s go to the most beautiful part of the world, and destroy it.
A noticeable rise in thyroid cancer cases among the citizens of French Polynesia followed, so there are multiple reasons for the people here to be horrified by this. Even De Roller is aghast, and he starts to follow the admiral around or use his binoculars to scan the blue surf to see if a nuclear submarine is lurking nearby. He’s pretty sure there is: The Naval officers have been shipping beautiful young women working as escorts out to sea on little skiffs, apparently to meet the sub, and they return “in pretty rough shape.” That’s grim, and then the admiral makes his intentions for all of the islands even more plain: “If we’d treat our own people like this, imagine what our enemies will think of how we’d treat them.”
Serra has invoked the ’70s conspiracy thrillers of Alan J. Pakula when talking about “Pacifiction,” but the specter of nuclear weapons testing isn’t what the film is “about” as much as it contributes to an atmosphere of uncertainty and fragility. It’s a narrative throughline on which Serra hangs other issues and ideas in this very episodic movie. Think of a Frederick Wiseman documentary but as a narrative feature; Serra almost made it like a documentary, filming 180 hours of footage (via three cameras at once for each scene, so really 540 hours of footage), and with the script revised and improvised on the fly. Serra made Magimel wear an earpiece into which the director would recite lines, the actor expected to repeat them with flair and nuance in real time.
It’s rare to have a starkly formalist work in which a personality makes such an impression. Serra’s concern is often with the way pastel neon rays shoot through smoky nightclub air, how the running lights of a boat illuminate the water at night, or, during the unforgettable surfing scene, how the immense swells of the ocean cause people and boats to bob like bath toys. But he never loses sight of the people he’s filming. Magimel, famously the student of “The Piano Teacher” in Haneke’s film and a winner this year of a Cesar Award for Best Actor for “Peaceful,” is the latest example of Serra making use of a star in a central role (after Jean-Pierre Léaud in “The Death of Louis XIV” and Helmut Berger in “Liberté”): Imagine a work of gallery video art — and “Pacifiction,” with the way it centers its style and the deliberate pace it gives the audience to contemplate that style, is a cousin to Serra’s actual gallery work such as his 101-hour “Three Little Pigs” — that also has a captivating star turn.
And Magimel isn’t the only one. There’s also Pahoa Mahagafanau, a trans Polynesian actor who plays the femme-presenting Shannah, a kind of aide and muse to De Roller. There are many third-gender traditions around the world, and Mahagafanau belongs to a unique Polynesian one: mahu is the term for those born male who then express their gender, and are accepted by the society, as female. Her Shannah is the kind of local who’s trying to have a dialogue about their future but is uniquely vulnerable to forces outside of her control. She’s the conscience of the movie. Shannah occupies different spaces at once, and she’s an ideal avatar for the many roles everyone living in a tropical paradise has to adopt.
If you’re a local in any tourist destination, your home never will be quite your own. You depend on outsiders for your cash flow, without which your economy would collapse; but those outsiders can gobble up all the goods, real estate, services, and amenities that cash flow is meant to provide. There’s an element of colonialism in any place that lives off tourism, and then there’s the outright ongoing colonialism in Polynesia. Everyone comes to you to partake in paradise; what if they also decide, because of its remoteness, to make it a dumping ground for their worst refuse?
Serra is sensitive to these concerns without ever making “Pacifiction” a “didactic film,” which he’s said he finds too many films today to be. To be didactic ultimately means to hammer home one view and embrace being one thing, and “Pacifiction” embodies too many overlapping concerns and identities to be considered as such. Maybe we can’t hold two thoughts (or more) in our head at once, but “Pacifiction” makes the case that you can feel those ideas simultaneously, even if you can’t fully think them through. As Marianne Renoir once said, “There are ideas in feelings.” And “Pacifiction” is “Vibes the Movie.”
One of those feelings: The tension between the actual expression of Polynesian culture and the perception of that culture. This comes across most strongly at Morton’s, the nightclub catering to white outsiders in which Polynesian locals, male and female, barely wear anything while serving drinks, and hip-shaking tāmūrē shows are a spectacle. When they’re not performing, there’s piped-in steel guitar music to add just the right stereotypical allure for tourists who wouldn’t want anything else. At one moment, De Roller adds his own directorial critique to the tāmūrē show, urging the male performers to add more “violence” to their performance. As always in colonialism, the colonizer thinks they understand the culture of the colonized better than they do.
“Pacifiction” is far too oblique to be fully an heir to the Pakula conspiracy thriller tradition. Thomas Pynchon and “the conspiracy that’s just out of reach and never quite defined” feels a more apt comparison. After all, it’s possible weapons testing will never resume here. But isn’t it disturbing enough that it’s considered at all? “Pacifiction” is vital because it’s a movie for a culture constantly patting itself on the back but in desperate risk of repeating all its previous mistakes. Where every little bit of progress is imperiled. We delude ourselves in thinking colonial exploitation was left behind in the 20th century (along with nuclear tests). Or maybe we choose to ignore what’s right in front of us.
What do you want next when you already have paradise? Well, it’s only a paradise if you can keep it.
“Pacifiction” will be released by Grasshopper Film and Gratitude Films on a date to be announced.