Pacifiction–Tourment sur les Îles

Entranced in Tahiti

November 9, 2022By Heidi EllisonFilm
De Roller (Benoît Magimel) and Shannah (Pahoa Mahagafanau) in Albert Serra’s Pacifiction–Tourment sur les Îles.
De Roller (Benoît Magimel) and Shannah (Pahoa Mahagafanau) in Albert Serra’s Pacifiction–Tourment sur les Îles.

Take a very thin script, set your film on a gorgeous tropical island, hire some good actors but let the main character do most of the talking, then stretch the movie out to two hours and 45 minutes. The result is Pacifiction–Tourment sur les Îles, made (in French) by the Catalan director Albert Serra. 

This talky movie stars the talented Benoît Magimel as De Roller, the high commissioner for French Polynesia, based in Tahiti. We first meet him (dressed in the white suit, printed shirt and blue-tinted eyeglasses he wears throughout the film in a caricature of a colonial official) in the long opening sequence, set in the claustrophobic confines of a nightclub where the well-built male servers wear nothing but white underpants, while their female counterparts sport skimpy white costumes. This scene is so long that you may be forgiven for wondering when you are ever going to get to see the island of Tahiti. Don’t worry, some arbitrary scenes will be thrown in later to show off its spectacular scenery.

The pretext for the film is that, following the sighting of a submarine offshore, rumors have sprung up that France is planning to restart nuclear testing in the area. De Roller, however, has not been informed of anything by his superiors, which seems odd, given that he is France’s top official there. 

For the rest of the film, he goes from place to place discussing the possibility and consequences of such an eventuality with various people, including local activists, politicians, drunks and a French admiral who is accompanied by a troupe of hunky sailors. He also “investigates“ by keeping a lookout for the submarine through a pair of binoculars.

One lengthy scene follows another, the purpose of some being completely inexplicable.

Many of the actors are completely wasted here, one of them being Sergi López, a great actor who, like many other characters, simply lurks mysteriously in the background most of the time and has hardly a word to say. 

Another character, Shannah (Pahoa Mahagafanau), who becomes De Roller’s partner during the course of the film, is obviously trans, but absolutely no mention is made of that fact. That’s pretty cool, right? The problem is that the character has absolutely no personality. She is pretty much a wooden stick figure who hangs out in the background, smiling and smoothing her long hair. She is given only a few lines to speak.  

The improvised feeling of many of the film’s sequences – one of the most painful being the 10 or 15 minutes (seemed like it, anyway) when the drunk or drugged De Roller sits in his car mumbling and ranting to himself – can be explained by the director’s method of keeping the actors in the dark about what scene will be filmed until the last minute and speaking their lines to them through an earpiece. Serra also uses three cameras for each scene so that the actors don’t play to the camera but “go into a kind of trance.” So does the viewer.

At the avant-première I attended, audience members were leaving in droves throughout. I was tempted to do the same many times but bravely decided to stay and see if this disjointed, rambling work would ever coalesce into something comprehensible, moving or rewarding. It didn’t. I recommend that you use the nearly three hours the film takes to do something more fun like cleaning out your drains, learning to knit or simply staring into space to create your own trancelike state. 



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