It was Paul Gauguin, France’s most celebrated Polynesian tourist, who once wrote of “learning to know the silence of a Tahitian night.” It’s a void, he wrote, in which other senses and sensory awarenesses are heightened, amplifying his sense of loneliness and separation from others: “The inhabitants of the district and I mutually watched each other, and the distance remained the same.” Gauguin isn’t mentioned in “Pacifiction,” Albert Serra’s languorous, meandering tour of modern-day Tahiti, though those words echo through its survey of the island’s distanced, distracted residents — even if the nights here aren’t as silent as the artist might remember, disrupted as they are with tinny discotheque beats, darkened trysts and the hovering, unidentified threat of nuclear warfare.
The first film by cultish Catalan provocateur Serra to crack Cannes’s competition lineup, “Pacifiction” is an unhurried, 164-minute tropical tour that is sort of about nothing and everything at once. Slender in terms of incident, its drawn-out narrative is nonetheless rife with political tension, observing both the enduring colonialist entitlement of the French Republic territory’s Gallic custodians and the ever-itching resentment felt by its indigenous population — coming to a head under the twin threats of gentrifying development and military destruction. The film’s contemporary setting makes it a departure of sorts from Serra’s recent run of sensuous, somnambulant period pieces — which bottomed out, so to speak, with 2019’s 18th-century erotic endurance test “Liberté” — but it’s fully consistent with his oeuvre in its hazy cultivation of mood and its merging of historical realities with daydreamed surrealism.
Either way it’s a very passive fiction indeed, the oblique thriller-ish trappings of which probably aren’t enough to significantly expand Serra’s select, besotted fanbase, though esoterically-inclined distributors will try. Provided they stick with the film’s luxuriantly gradual pacing, however, there are rewards here even for more bemused viewers caught in its tide. Those include the humid beauty and occasionally giddy technical fluidity of Artur Tort’s camerawork and an amusingly offhanded lead performance by Benoît Magimel, settling ever more louchely into the character-actor phase of his career.
He plays the island’s French High Commissioner De Roller — an apt enough name for someone who at least likes to see himself as a droll high roller, permanently clad in the expected uniform of white summer suit, beachy printed shirt and orange espadrilles, whether he’s taking meetings or zooming around on a jetski. Gregarious but glib, he seemingly has no off-switch as a politician: Every encounter is a negotiation and a performance, whether he’s appeasing local community leaders to pave the way for a new luxury casino development, paying tribute to a visiting French novelist attempting a Gauguin-style creative exile, or simply making small talk with fellow patrons at the sleazy neighborhood nightclub run by fellow expat Morton (a brief cameo from Sergi Lopez).
Even with his would-be lover, transgender traditional dancer Shannah (Pahoa Mahagafanau, in a warm, watchful turn), he’s guarded and manipulative, seeking opportunities for an advantage with the locals — newly aggravated by rumors that a French submarine is lurking near their shores, set to resume the program of nuclear testing that was paused in the area in the mid-1990s. De Roller denies such talk with smarmy assurance. The truth, however, is he’s exasperatedly out of the loop himself, stalking a newly arrived navy admiral (Mark Susini) and his crew, and cruising the ocean after dark for signs of underwater activity — none of which is especially fruitful, not least since the sailors seem mostly interested in hanging around Morton’s club, in extended scenes of semi-homoerotic socializing that play a little like Abdellatif Kechiche remixing “Querelle.”
Written down in such terms, “Pacifiction” sounds plottier than it is, whereas Serra’s primary interest is in the slow, repetitive grind of De Roller’s routine. His daily circuits of meetings, greetings and cocktails expose the petty vanities of colonial bureaucracy and the puffed-up insecurities of privileged but replaceable European patriarchy, in a manner comparable to Lucrecia Martel’s far more feverish, intellectually buzzing “Zama.” Serra’s filmmaking, though, keeps any political agitation below the rippling surface.
It’s perhaps significant that the film’s most captivating scene involves simply giving over to the elements, as we head out on one of the boats transporting surfers far from the shore an into the Pacific, where staggeringly high breakers lift and carry all crafts with vast, inhuman power — and for several minutes, Tort’s 4K camera bobs and rises with them in a thrilling, immersive surrender. “Pacifiction” is a film in many ways about floating, through life and water and power, inviting the viewer to idly drift right along with it.