Why is there always trouble in paradise? In Spanish director Albert Serra’s fictional present-day Polynesian idyll, a threat sneaks up between waves of dreamlike images.
French high commissioner to Tahiti, De Roller (The Piano Teacher’s Benoît Magimel), moves through political and social spaces with the aesthetic of an off-duty rock star in his tinted glasses, hawaiian shirts and cream suit. He’s a big fish in a small pond, at least until rumours about a resumption of nuclear testing begin to spread. It’s quickly obvious that, in contrast with the French military, he’s actually a small fish. Subtle observations about different shades of colonial power infuse what is – above all else – a strikingly gorgeous film.
De Roller is taken out to sea for an extraordinary business meeting in a place where 50-foot waves climb the widescreen frame. Plot is forgotten. Character is forgotten. The roaring, white-tipped azure ocean is all that matters.
This scene is a serene outlier, as political intrigue sneaks in via het-up conversations with stressed locals. Magimel gives De Roller a poise that slowly comes undone once he sees that he is further from the seat of power than he’d previously imagined.
It’s a strikingly gorgeous film, full of long and naturalistic takes
His closest confidante is transgender hospitality worker Shannah (Pahoa Mahagafanau, a megawatt discovery with no prior credits). Mahagafanau is consistently captivating, exuding a grace that is all the more palpable amid the vague haze of menace. Serra has not made a conventional thriller in which his hero happens to be in the right rooms at the right times to hear Machiavellian plans laid bare; De Roller is out of the picture, piecing things together while grappling with the realisation of his own powerlessness.
Two-and-a-half hours long, Pacifiction is a film of extremely long and naturalistic takes in which tiny details become hypnotic – whether it’s the refreshing drinks served at a meeting or the way a woman dances. It’s full of encroaching darkness but Serra’s devotion to capturing the natural riches of Polynesia means that colour cannot be snuffed out completely. There will always be the orange light of dawn.
In US theaters now. In UK cinemas April 21.