PACIFICTION Review: Party All Night With the Devil in Tahiti

Directed by Albert Serra, the film stars Benoît Magimel, Sergi López, Pahoa Mahagafanau, Cécile Guilbert, and Matahi Pambrun.

Contributing Writer; Toronto, Canada (@triflic)
PACIFICTION Review: Party All Night With the Devil in Tahiti

“This is my office, and it is always trying to kill me,” pontificates the High Commissioner, a man named De Roller, as he grandstands, slinks, and politics though his duties in Albert Serra’s paranoid, sun-dappled enigma. If only our ‘fake news’ and conspiracy culture could be as artful and sublime as his latest film, Pacifiction.

French star Benoît Magimel looks and acts the part of the appointed colonial head of state of French Polynesia, in his crisp linen suits and top-button undone button-down shirts. He can hold court to local business interests in a formal resort meeting room as easily as offering support and criticism in the rehearsal spaces of a traditional aboriginal dance show, or glide through the purple neon shadows at the sleazy nightclub, Paradise Night; where the ‘real’ action happens.

By action, it is not that exactly, but more like insinuation: mysteries that we never get answers to, deals that never quite come to fruition.

Clocking in at nearly three hours, the film feels longer, more languid, more episodic (and certainly odder) than the paranoid 1970s political thrillers from which it seems to draw inspiration. When this kind of quintessential Hollywood prestige genre plot (think The Parallax View or The Conversation) is filtered through a European Arthouse sensibility, it takes on its own kind of inscrutable originality, and results in underrated gems like Olivier Assayas’ Boarding Gate, or Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Whistlers.

This is a profoundly underserviced sweet spot in cinema (for me personally). Pacifiction wonderfully scratches that itch.

The impossible pinks and deep oranges of Tahitian magic hour set the tone, or at least the post-card veneer, as we get a heightened tour through the more banal aspects of 21st Century colonialism and foreign administration. We only see events through De Roller, who, despite his charisma and integration with the locals, is oddly, ‘the little guy.’

His job feels almost irrelevant. It is performed perfunctorily. He has no idea what is afoot, politically, but he has suspicions. In an act of self-preservation (or self-immolation) he attempts to get to the bottom of a possible military conspiracy involving nuclear testing. He is convinced that there is a French submarine docked off the island, which is being "serviced" by midnight trips from the local prostitutes and their criminal enablers.

Various shady operators are scheming on the island cluster: a thin high-cheek boned American spook, a drunk Portuguese diplomat who has lost his passport and his entourage, a French Naval officer with a penchant for the nude male dancers at the club, and an ambitious resort staffer, round out a cast of unusual suspects, including Spanish star Sergi López, who plays the Paradise Night proprietor, Morton. He lurks in the background, observing everything and doing nothing, with an air of casual, ambiguous, cruelty.

The film pauses, at the midpoint, to observe a collection of boats take in a surfing event. The spectators, including De Roller, are nearly swept away several times, bobbing almost helplessly on the unpredictable swells. Danger and entertainment with a gorgeous backdrop.

This one of several unsubtle, but terrifically spot on, metaphors (see also a spectacular bit of cock-fighting theatre) that Serra swirls around like aged wine, before spitting it out and moving on. You do this particular "narrative tasting" on the filmmaker’s terms, or you exit the cinema.

Pacifiction is that kind of movie, it is certainly not for all tastes. A feeling of partying all night with the devil under swaying palm trees. At a certain point, cut off from all reality, one can never quite seem to escape its lurid tropical gravity. In a word, it is hypnotic.

Originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2022. The film opens Friday, February 17 at Film at Lincoln Center in New York. Visit the official site for more information.

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Albert SerraBenoît MagimelCécile GuilbertGrasshopper FilmMatahi PambrunPahoa MahagafanauSergi LópezSpain

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