The notion of ‘postcolonialism’ is a difficult one – often misunderstood and containing some very academic ideas – but also, perhaps, useful for people in power. Though it is designed to open conversation about how to redress the balance after the rancid evil of the age of European empires, it also, somewhat implies, that this was an era of the past. This couldn’t be less true, especially in the case of France, which Albert Serra’s languorous, dreamlike Pacifiction attempts to grapple with. Upon the still-French colony of Tahiti, the same banal yet inhuman evil of bureaucratic colonialism lurks, eventually infecting everything in sight.
Our guide to this world – though he himself is ever more baffled by it – is High Commissioner De Roller (Benoit Magimel), a white representative of the French state whose position is increasingly revealed to be a purely ceremonial one. He hangs out with the locals who seem to at least tolerate him, some maybe even actively liking him – especially hotelier Shannah (Pahoa Mahagafanau), with whom De Roller is in love – but his position is made suddenly tenuous by rumours that nuclear testing, paused by the French government since the ‘90s, is due to restart on the more distant islands.
Memories of illness and state-sanctioned barbarity resurface as the navy, represented mostly by a drunkard of an admiral (played by Marc Susini), and there’s some sort of sinister multinational conspiracy afoot, though De Roller’s attempts to investigate are inevitably fruitless – they’re operating on a level of power he can’t comprehend, let alone unravel. This slow-burn anxiety fuels Pacifiction, which moves at a glacial pace across a colossal, near three-hour runtime but makes up for it by being hypnotic, luring you into this dark imperial world.
Serra’s visuals are gorgeous, Tahitian sunsets setting the screen on fire, long takes building up a wonderfully immersive atmosphere. As the stakes get a bit more grand and abstract towards the end, the pacing becomes more trying, but Serra pulls it back with a furious final scene. Deadpan humour also helps move things along, Magimel’s hangdog manner earning plenty of laughs.
Pacifiction’s absolute best moments, though, come when it surrenders to nature – especially in one jaw-dropping surfing sequence done for real out in the enormous Pacific waves. It’s awe-inspiring stuff, finding joy and fear in this beautiful piece of our planet. In his grim final message, Serra shows us that European powers simply can’t just let this beauty be – something in the cruel and conquering nature of the continent must destroy any wonder it can’t control. It’s a tragic note to end on, but it’s an argument that feels, after 165 minutes of Serra making it so intelligently, incontestable.