A great idea realized painfully slowly

Pacificationwritten and directed by Albert Serra, won Best Actor and Best Cinematography at the Caesar Awardsessentially the French equivalent of the oscarsand arrives in the United States swollen with various laurels film festival honors and glowing quotes from AO Scott and Cahiers du Cinéma (the latter calling it “best film of the year”), as it unfolds in various art houses.

In some ways, I understand the praise. It is easy to describe the film which Pacification could be in a way that looks exciting, especially combined with still images depicting waves at Teahupo’o and sexy, South Pacific Idyll. Pacification is installed and shot on location in Tahiti, which was enough to attract me on my own. Yet there is a chasm between PacificationThe promise of and the crushing burden it is to sit – which is numbing and mundane in a way that doesn’t inspire flowery prose. It inspires above all grumpy grunts (prefiguration…).

Hardly have I seen a film with such an intriguing premise and set of influences that also seemed so bent on lulling me to sleep. Pacification plays like a heady combination of John Le Carré, Graham Green, Paul Gauguin and the hum of a leaf blower. It’s 162 minutes long and “languishing” doesn’t come close to describing the monotonous rhythm.

Benoît Magimel, him César for best actor, embodies De Roller, the “high commissioner” of Tahiti appointed by France. His job, as he seems to imagine it, is to roam the island mingling with wealthy foreigners, poor locals, tourists and horseflies, a sort of benevolent, bluffing presence that borrows the prestige of the motherland. to enrich the premises, in the most paternalistic way possible. While naturally boasting of the high social status that accompanies the position. Essentially a smoothing bureaucrat, but not necessarily a villain. Magimel is brilliant in a wonderfully nuanced role.

A major complication of this cushy gig is the arrival of a sleazy French admiral and some pale marines, which sparks rumors of a French submarine sailing in local waters, and with it the possibility of resuming nuclear testing. . Indeed, nothing highlights the absurdity of colonialism better than the world’s great powers choosing to test their most destructive weapons in their most scenic territories, leveling paradise to set up superfund sites (Moruroa in French Polynesia being essentially the French equivalent of Bikini Atoll).

Other cast members in the drama include De Roller’s trans mistress Shannah (Pahoa Mahagafanau, in a hugely convincing performance), a horny guest author, a local activist, and a handful of various other sleazy characters, including a drunk customer from the restaurant. hotel waking up in a stupor screaming about a stolen passport in Portuguese. They all congregate at Morton’s, a smoky tiki where local service staff wear skimpy, provocative outfits to perpetuate the myth of Tahiti as the libertine paradise that has lured sketchy Europeans for hundreds of years, from Gauguin to Brando. .

Again, on paper this all sounds amazing, so much so that I almost convinced myself to watch it again. I can’t think of a movie I’d click “play” on faster than a Polynesian casablanca about sleazy ghosts, bumbling colonials, corrupt officials and slimy sex tourists settled in Tahiti. Yet just when Pacification looks like it’s about to merge with that, rewarding our patience after about 90 minutes of numbing repetitive dialogue and pointless long takes, it plays out with about 40 more minutes of long-term visual noodles, with a buzz score.

This film takes an insanely sexy premise and stages it in the driest way imaginable, almost entirely without score and without music for much of its long run, with monologue characters for 15 and 20 minutes straight. After an hour and 53 minutes, two shadowy figures who have lurked in the perimeter for the entire film come together for what appears to be an important dialogue. They speak in English while the subtitles disappear and say… something. I’ve rewound it four times and still have no idea.

I understand and appreciate a movie that doesn’t hold your hand every step of the way and asks you to interpret one way. But Serra’s choices in Pacification seem not only restrained and open to interpretation, but deliberately obtuse. Rather than immersing you in the subject, they almost forced you to consider the construction, to ask “why is he trying to make a romantic subject matter so boring?”

Other than inspiring generous reviewers to call this style “meditative,” I don’t have a good answer. It also begs the question: why am I even re-watching a movie that maybe 1% of my audience will see? Because it pissed me off, I guess. People are waiting for director’s cuts of their favorite movies, but I’d love to see a “producer’s cut” of this one.

‘Pacification’ currently plays in a handful of major cities. You can see where here. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can read more of his reviews here.

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