The first images in Albert Serra’s slippery and satirical film Pacifiction are not what comes to mind for many when thinking of Tahiti. Yes, the film’s background is a limpid array of mountains drenched in a gorgeous salmon-tinted sunset. The long pan, however, reveals a more prosaic foreground: A busy port lined with stacks of shipping containers that function as a mercantile mountain range. From Serra’s perspective, Tahiti might be a paradise and should be photographed as such, but it is also a place of business.
That contrast between the sublime and the prosaic is embodied in Pacifiction‘s mysterious main character. De Roller (Benoît Magimel) is the High Commissioner of French Polynesia, a role that seems to provide him with very broad yet somewhat ill-defined powers. His position also, and this is crucial for such a lugubriously-paced film, allows ample time for just hanging out with all the people who want to bend the High Commissioner’s ear about this issue or that.
Much of Pacifiction follows De Roller from one generally uneventful get-together to another at which various issues are discussed, and seemingly little is agreed upon. Almost none of these meetings are held in any official chambers. Rather, De Roller holds court at parties, at impromptu outdoor hang-outs, and particularly the nightclub where seemingly all of Tahitian society gathers. Serra’s film is far more engaged in those long and seemingly off-the-cuff engagements where De Roller’s skills as an engaging raconteur are on display than in delineating a plot.
Pacifiction is, in some ways, a good representation of the life of a diplomat: Listening to people, nodding sagely, promising to help, keeping up appearances, and engaging in the small talk and bridge-building that keeps things humming. But the casual manner of De Roller’s interactions barely obscures the tensions roiling behind his dark glasses and suavely inviting half-smile.
When the Pacifiction begins, De Roller is mostly focused on the mundane matter of building a casino. This occasionally causes him to break out some high-minded rhetoric; infuriated that religious leaders are trying to stop their congregants from going, he invokes the French Revolution and secularist principles of laïcité before going to the head of a church and threatening to “destroy” it in a rare sign of outward aggression.
What unsettles the otherwise almost preternaturally serene De Roller (which Magimel invests with a keen watchfulness that rescues the character from dullness) is the rumor that France will restart nuclear testing for the first time since the mid-’90s. Given the close nature of an island society where it is hard to keep anything secret, De Roller cannot help but notice the sudden appearance of a French admiral (Marc Susini) and marines at the nightclub, along with other mysterious Europeans.
He watches the cerulean seas. Thinking he spots a submarine, he wonders whether that is where the boat of sex workers he sees leaving from a deserted beach goes every night. To a degree that might discomfit his superiors in Paris, De Roller appears clearly on the side of the Tahitians—many of whom are terrified about the prospect of nuclear testing, as they believe that earlier atomic explosions sewed cancer throughout the islands. He sees the French navy as dangerous interlopers rather than comrades.
None of this keeps De Roller from enjoying the life of a colonial official in a gorgeous setting. Seemingly little is required of him from a professional standpoint other than to keep the peace, make sure the casino opens, and look good in a loose-fitting tropical white suit. Though acknowledging that “I utilize my privilege maybe too often,” De Roller uses his station to go wherever he wants, which often ends up being the dressing room where a group of traditional dancers is rehearsing a show, or wherever cocktails are being served.
Given Magimel’s effortlessly engaging manner, this floating socializing makes De Roller a superb point of focus for a cloudy storyline. Unfortunately, there is little ultimately to be gathered from many of his interactions, where De Roller tends to monologue before a frequently quiescent audience. An exception is the quasi-romantic moments he has with Shanneh (Pahoa Mahagafanau), a transgender Tahitian dancer who seems to be the only character to which he truly opens up.
Pacifiction keeps its cards close, for the most part. There are suggestions of deeper undercurrents, particularly around simmering resentments over colonialism and exploitation. Serra does not pull back the curtain on what is truly happening until the last few minutes when the story’s buried paranoia shows itself. Until then, Pacifiction stays in a muzzy middle where fact and fantasy are practically indistinguishable. This may explain why De Roller, for all his apparent concerns over nuclear testing, never breaks a sweat over stopping it.