Pacification has the markers of a taut political thriller. There is an exotic setting, a colonial possession, and a white linen suit. One can image a well-intentioned Yves Montand playing the martyr for Costas-Gavras. Albert Serra, however, builds a cinema upon the glacial ruins of these markers. His film are deliberately anti-cinematic, insofar as they defamiliarise generic confines. The works for which he is most known have been called anti-costume-dramas or anti-epics. His The Death of Louis XIV features Jean-Pierre Léaud lying in bed, while his previous film, Liberté, is designed to frustrate the voyeurism innate in tug-and-pull cinema. Pacification is immediately striking for its contemporary setting and for the ever-present threat of its breaking out into paranoid fantasy. Fortunately, nothing much happens.
Benoît Magimel plays Mr. De Roller, the High Commissioner of Tahiti. When a delegation confronts him about a rumour regarding the presence of Naval vessels and the resumption of nuclear testing in the vicinity of the island, De Roller’s paradisal interlude slips. His first reaction is to make promises he cannot keep, if only because he holds no cards. Whatever happens in the film does so without his input. Inexplicable people turn up on the island: a Portuguese drunkard holding a diplomatic passport and an American seemingly involved with undermining the Commissioner’s position. It is this later figure who proves most despairing. He is present when an action by the local population is announced. The only possible resistance, it seems, is that undertaken under the auspices of another state power.
De Roller, not being made aware of what is going on, does some sleuthing of his own. He spies the bay with binoculars, plies drunk men with alcohol, and cosies up to an Admiral. But this is to give oneself over to a submerged narrative logic. Serra’s is a cinema of images, of bodies dwarfed by the frame. We watch as De Roller glides around the island, never too far from a nightclub called Paradise Night. At his lowest point, he refers to politics itself as a club; one for which he wants to turn on the lights, revealing the sweaty, bloated faces within.
This is what he says, but what he expresses is a frustration at being left out. He will accuse them (it’s always them) of trying to cut him out, to make him look bad. But there’s no need to blackmail the player holding no cards. De Roller cuts a pathetic, condescending figure, one whose position as a representative of the State is brandished with the same thoughtless reflex as his references to the values of the Revolution.
All of this occurs at the languorous pace for which Serra has made his name. There is a further penchant towards what I noted as ‘vaguely oneiric asides.’ A magnificent sequence in the surf will send a boat captain soaring over mountains. Later, the Commissioner will meet the Admiral in a club operated by topless women. Elsewhere, we watch dancers rehearsing a performance choreographed to evoke a cock fight while two roosters themselves fight. De Roller spends much of his time with these dancers, setting himself in their dressing room. This interest in bodies is both a consequence of duration and of a colonial, instrumental perception. The staff at the Paradise Night are all scantily dressed, the better to attract clientele. Investors abound, a hotel built over a cemetery an upcoming project. Tahiti is the paradise in which Western interests play.
As with his burgeoning paranoia, the Commissioner’s politics is one based on cynical reason. In the nightclub, he expresses the idea that the advances engendered by nuclear testing generate the funds required to treat the resulting illnesses. Genocide, he says while simultaneously distancing himself from the utterance, is the foundation of all great civilisations. The Admiral will later say that once they (always they) see how we treat our own people – the people of Tahiti being French citizens – there will be no doubt as to how we will treat others. The desire for power is the open secret of Pacification, where every resistance is undersigned Them.