Pacifiction Albert Serra (Fr; int co-prod; 2022) Benoit Magimel
viewed: Howard Gilman Cinema, Lincoln Centre NYC 15 March 2022; ticket $18
living with menace
‘Pacifiction’ (French title: Tourment sur les Iles) – was co-produced written directed and co- edited by Albert Serra who also chose the film’s location and its title(s). Using a system of shooting that often involved three camera set ups, the shot footage gave scope for a high degree of control over the the final cut and the film was given its particular form in the edit suite. ‘Pacifiction’ is Serra’s movie. The obvious question to pose is: the ‘why’ question. Why did Serra make the film; what does he want to say?
In ‘Pacifiction’ Serra is asking us to see something in the material he is showing us. Serra casts us the audience very much as spectators, privileged spectators, presented with events in a strange but familiar land. In this place we are shown that some things are hidden; so that the film is in some respects a process of revelation, a revealing of what was ‘hidden’ (but is known to be hidden) so that it gradually assumes a particular and undeniable sort of form. In this respect Serra’s film has some affinities with Haneka’s ‘Hidden’.
In ‘Pacifiction’ as perhaps in our own lives, we are the privileged observers of a slow inexorable process that begins with tendentious suggestive indications of a world that has gone amiss but which then proceeds by degrees to develop into overwhelming but subjective conviction of immanent disaster.
‘Pacifiction’ pivots about its central character De Roller, High Commissioner for a French Overseas Pacific Island Territory. A place that Occidentals, like us, once construed as ‘Paradise’. De Roller as the central attraction is rather like the Ring Master in a circus. All eyes and attention focus on De Roller as they might on the Ring Master of a circus (though without the whip). De Roller is in complete control of the proceedings in ‘Circus Pacifiction’ manipulating with authority disdain elegance and charm the disparate acts that make up the production: the casino performers, the local businessmen, the local opposing politicos, the ex-pat community, his own staff and any individuals that arouse his interest or suspicion. Unlike the Ring Master he doesn’t wear red waistcoat tails and black leather boots. But he is equally distinguished in his own neo-colonial uniform of an immaculately laundered but slightly crumpled white linen suit.
Unlike the Ring Master who is always a distant figure, Sarra brings De Roller up close to us. As the film develops we are not just spectators to his performance as High Commissioner, in all its effortless arrogant masterful execution, but have some muted access to the back channels of power that direct him and his public response in relation to the approaching singular event of a nuclear bomb test apparently planned to take place in the vicinity. But De Roller is power and is possessed by all the cognitive accoutrements and adjusted thinking that are the hallmarks of power. I remember McNamara once arguing that a thermo-nuclear war was ‘survivable’ and thus could be moved from the category of an unthinkable event to an event that could be thought through. McNamara was demonstrating the neutralising assuagement of effects that justify mass murder, an utterance of power common to all mass murderers, a specious real politique of justificatory logic. And De Roller exposes himself as one touched by the virus of power. In one monologue he approves the mass extermination of native peoples because it enabled the advance of civilisation; likewise he justifies nuclear weapons and the consequences of their use, by the fact that they would give the civilised people the understanding of how to survive them.
De Roller is the personification of ‘power’. ‘Power’ that places itself over the interests of all humanity, is inured to criticism and confident in its entitlement to survive all threats to its existence, both physical and social.
‘Pacifiction’ charts a slow inexorable movement towards a disturbing nuclear event. Man made climate change is a slow inexorable movement towards climate disaster.
My feeling is that Sarra has made ‘Pacifiction’ as an analogous parable to the mounting crisis of man made global warning and consequent climate change. Like climate change the revealing of the proposed new nuclear testing is a gradual process. Both the nuclear testing and climate change, only slowly become clear; but they are never allowed to become undeniably clear by power which obfuscates and prevaricates and ultimately justifies what is doing in the name of its own power, which no one has the organisation to oppose. Only when it is too late will the catastrophic effects make themselves felt by the victims. By which time the perpetrators will have vanished and/or re-invented themselves in another form.
De Roller might well argue Global Warning is a positive process for Power. It will get rid of a lot of unnecessary people and allow ‘civilisation’ to flourish under new conditions perhaps on a new planet. Interesting to note that threat in ‘Pacifiction’ is represented by the submarine. The submarine of course functions as a metaphore or the unseen menace that threaten us, threats that are always under the surface. And another thought: the French Pacific Island Territories are amongst those islands most threatened by rising sea levels, and it is perhaps a reflection of Sarra’s black humour, that the French will get away from the scene of their crime using a vehicle that is impervious to increasing water levels that will erase many of these islands from the maps of the world.