AFI Fest 2022: Pacifiction, by David Bax
In the most breathtaking scene in Albert Serra‘s Pacifiction (the competition for that title is fierce), a Frenchman in a cream-colored linen suit stands on a center console boat off the shore of Tahiti and watches the waves grow larger and more threatening. Eventually, the danger outweighs the spectacle for him and he opts to be whisked away on the back of a water scooter to his own safety and that of his upscale resort wear. Seeing this on a cinema screen was almost overwhelming; the man’s decision to leave nearly had me cheering him on like he was the final girl in a slasher movie getting away from the killer. How Serra and cinematographer Artur Tort captured these images is similarly anxiety-inducing to ponder. But it’s only the most potent example of how the movie respects and highlights the beauty of its tropical setting without being anything anyone would consider a good advertisement for tourism.
In fact, Serra and Tort almost dare you to be enticed by this place, where the colors both naturally occurring and otherwise are not washed out by the sun but rather warmed by it, made all the more brilliant. The frames are saturated, the hues often separated like a modernist painting; yet none of it seems augmented to death by digital intermediate or other forms of color timing like so many 21st century movies. Not only is Pacifiction stunning but it manages to remain so over the course of its nearly three hour run time.
Serra and co-screenwriter Baptiste Pinteaux have crafted a mysterious political thriller that somewhat recalls Andreas Fontana‘s Azor from last year in its tale of a white European doing business abroad in a sunny country and getting in over his head. But Pacifiction remains its own animal with its own aims. For one, unlike Azor‘s lead, De Roller (Benoît Magimel), our man in linen, is no stranger to this place. He’s a French diplomat and Tahiti, an overseas administrative division of France, is his territory. Or, at least, that’s how he sees it.
Much of Pacifiction takes place in rooms or other private places inhabited only by those with a perceived need to know the details of the even-tempered but highly important conversations being had. These are more likely to be well-appointed homes than offices. Such settings, along with De Roller’s suit, which he wears for most of the movie, suggest that his time on the island is a constant mix of business and pleasure.
But things are changing, if slowly (remember how long this movie is). The slow burn running joke is that this man of power, means and status is increasingly playing catch-up. He enters every situation with the confidence of someone accustomed to being the smartest in the room only to repeatedly find himself lagging behind the latest developments. In a darkly humorous and stunningly gorgeous way, Pacifiction is about a man gradually becoming obsolete.