No Man Is an Island
This article appeared in the February 16, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Learning about how a film is constructed can make its artifice difficult to ignore. While watching Albert Serra’s Pacifiction (2022), I kept thinking about an interview with the director I’d read in Reverse Shot, which revealed that the lead actor, Benoît Magimel, was fed lines through an earpiece during certain takes. Serra’s a loose-handed director, and though Pacifiction is his most focused narrative feature to date, he still accrued 540 hours of footage during production—the result of continuously recording his actors with three cameras while they interacted in partially scripted situations. Magimel plays De Roller, a high commissioner of the French Republic sent to Tahiti to assuage fears that France will resume nuclear testing there. The more he languishes in the island’s tropical haze, the more he suspects that he’s a pawn in a larger, more sinister game, and the ministerial verve he initially displays curdles into a barely concealed paranoia.
Pacifiction charts De Roller’s growing recognition of his lack of freedom as a diplomat, all while Magimel is, one imagines, trying to conceal his own unfreedom as a performer and switch seamlessly between improvised and parroted lines. This tension between the agency of individuals and what they are instrumentalized to do or represent is a recurring preoccupation of Serra’s filmography, which is filled with long-dead historical figures reanimated through cinema’s zombifying machinations. I write “zombifying” because the luster of life, of an era as it was embodied, is debased in Serra’s work through its transformation into a vulgar image. The Death of Louis XIV (2016) provides an obvious example of this: the titular king (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is little more than a half-deflated balloon, a man who heaves his last, uncomfortable breaths amid a flock of obsessive physicians. The myth of absolute sovereignty that sanctified his rule is drolly effaced by this display of decrepit corporeality.
Pacifiction contains numerous vessels of power besides De Roller—there is the local church leader he promises to ruin if the man continues opposing plans to construct a casino; the unnamed French Navy admiral (Marc Susini) and his seamen who appear to be on an undisclosed mission; and the Quiet American (Mike Landscape) who stalks De Roller and may be a secret agent. Here, however, the decay that counterposes their stature is moral rather than physical, expressed through the decadence of the nightclub they all frequent, the seamen’s practice of bringing local girls aboard their nuclear submarine (a phantasmic presence that De Roller searches for and never finds) and returning them to shore in a sorry state, and the casual objectification of the topless women seen at the Admiral’s house. The only manifestation of material decay is the abandoned hotel that De Roller paces through while lost in thought, a remnant from some vanished heyday of Tahiti’s tourism industry. The pandemic caused a drop in visitor numbers on the island at the time of the film’s shooting, establishing an atmosphere of emptiness that Serra capitalizes on. But all this unease is couched in the overriding beauty of Artur Tort’s vibrant, texturally rich cinematography, which bathes the image in an ethereal glow, and in striking color casts at blue and golden hours. It is this visual splendor that ultimately masks something far too dark to be shown directly.
What poisons this postcard-ready paradise is more excessive and terrifying than any act of degradation that Serra has depicted in his previous films: the threat of nuclear annihilation, which implies an erasure beyond death. In his writings on postwar Japanese cinema, Akira Mizuta Lippit describes the atomic blast as a kind of “violent photography,” an extreme transformation of the body into an image. Overwritten by the effects of the blast and its radiation, the body becomes “absent, inaccessible, secret.” This is not a new threat for the islands. France’s program of nuclear testing in French Polynesia started in 1966, and initially included above-ground detonations. But after the governments of Australia and New Zealand charged France with claims that airborne fallout from those tests had contaminated their countries, France switched to detonating in holes drilled into the ocean floor. This made the tests no less destructive, but helped conceal them from international observers. As Matahi (Matahi Pambrun), a duplicitous Indigenous activist, reminds De Roller during a meeting, Tahiti’s residents are not keen on “going back to ’95, or to the ’70s when we just let them carry on”—referencing the campaign from 1995-96 to stop the last rounds of testing in Moruroa Atoll, and the prior decades of underground tests conducted there and on Fangataufa Atoll.
Serra mirrors this strategy of concealment in the film. We don’t meet anyone who exhibits or claims to have radiation-induced diseases or injuries, or victims demanding compensation for the lasting health and environmental consequences of testing. There are a few remarks, made late in the film by De Roller to the tipsy admiral, about women with thyroid, breast, and throat cancer, and who underwent mastectomies. Serra’s lacerating irony is palpable in this scene, which contrasts De Roller’s description with the sexy, full-breasted women surrounding the two men. He also mentions “deformed children” and “sick wives” during a delirious, apocalyptic rant about nuclear war in the very next scene. But these brief moments, most of which occur at the climax of De Roller’s paranoid arc, are as far as the film goes in acknowledging the real, physical effects of French Polynesia’s history of nuclear tests. Like the unseen submarine, this history is relegated to an incorporeal dimension, spoken about yet scarcely evidenced by those who struggled through it.
This omission reveals a limitation of the film’s portrayal of colonialism. It views politics as a conspiratorial process, in which history is made by string-pullers who occupy a realm inaccessible to ordinary individuals. While it winkingly skewers the naïveté and false benevolence of liberal imperialist bureaucracy, the film’s geopolitical imagination is strictly parapolitical, with the fates of small islands in the Pacific decided by the dealings of a ghostlike shadow state which cannot be fathomed. If anyone dares to take action themselves, they will only be misled or propped up according to the whims of others. When Matahi tells De Roller that he’s going to stage a protest against the resumption of tests, he also concedes that he’s doing so to spread panic and create fake news. Serra sees the public as chickens bred for a cockfight; De Roller’s critique of a Tahitian dance group’s cockfighting-inspired routine—“it’s not violent enough”—echoes the director’s representation of the victims of colonialism as mere playthings, their resistance a performance with little actual consequence. Pacifiction gives De Roller the privilege of grappling with the betrayal of being used, but those who live in the archipelagos he oversees have no agency to be stripped of in the first place.
To be fair, Serra is not interested in political critique. His interest, as he has repeated in interviews, is in creating singular and unique images. Even so, the film retreads familiar ground; its visions of an anomic, fallen paradise are hardly unprecedented. Serra’s Tahiti recalls Joan Didion’s Hawaiʻi, which she conjures up in her travelogues as a place claimed by American fictions of tourism and militarism, suspended in a “vertiginous occlusion of the imagined and the real.” Didion looks at Hawaiʻi and sees only a reflection of the United States. Likewise, Serra looks at Tahiti and sees only France staring back: its exceptionalist republicanism, the self-important bluster of its politicians, and the exotic primitivism of Gauguin, all of which paint a deterministic view of the island and its people and what they are or can become. Perhaps this is why he eschews a direct confrontation with the horror of the bomb, showing only its negation in the idealized beauty of the landscape—Tahiti is presented as being already lost to its colonial history of exploitation, with no past or future beyond it.
Jordan Nakamura’s Letterboxd review of the film sums up how I feel: “With any island where life is getting stolen from the people, the story I’m most interested in . . . isn’t the theft, but the life.” Glimmers of life do exist in Pacifiction, thanks largely to Pahoa Mahagafanau’s performance as Shannah, a rae-rae hotel receptionist. She is often seen with De Roller, though their precise relationship is never fully clarified. Mahagafanau is an understated scene-stealer. Her charming half-smiles and casual yet observant demeanor point toward another dimension of island life—that of the people who keep its tourism and service industries afloat—which is held at a distance from us. Shannah’s poise makes De Roller’s circumlocutory speeches seem impotent by comparison. One gets the sense that she’s not so much indulging him as she is just enjoying being along for the ride, partaking of the gifts and favors that come her way. In fact, it is precisely when the plot stalls and the film does little more than go for a ride, drifting with the weather and the currents, that Pacifiction is most captivating: at one point, De Roller meets the American in a grassy field under the fierce glare of stadium lights, but they make no moves at each other, the ink of their agendas dissolving under the vast curtains of rain that drench them both.
But these moments cannot last forever, and whatever life is left is lived for naught, as some invisible hand moves to knock Tahiti off a board, declaring it expendable. There is always another man with an earpiece, another director calling the shots. The film ends with a boat leaving a port with the admiral at its helm, roaring to his crew about a new world in which “no one will recognize you” after their mission is over. It’s an astonishingly chilling ending, one which implies that what is going to happen won’t just be a test—that what came for French Polynesia will come for the rest of the world, inaugurating humanity’s eternal night in its crimson wake.
Four years ago, I woke up to a text from my parents and a screenshot of a ballistic missile alert that made me think, even if only for a moment, that they and everyone I knew in Hawaiʻi were going to die. It was a false alarm, of course, but it’s still true that our military infrastructure paints a target over us, and many other “strategic locations” in the Pacific. Pacifiction is uninterested in showing what’s beneath that paint, and suggests that we don’t have any hope of removing it. But it certainly makes us aware that it is there, whether or not we’re able to see it for all the picturesque scenery.
Emerson Goo is a Deaf writer and film programmer from Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, and a landscape architecture undergrad at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.