Ambiguity is as ambiguity does in “Pacifiction,” a 165-minute French echo chamber drama that often seems to be more about its own narrative’s open-endedness than its Tahitian setting, punchy French politicians, or woozy dealmaking. “Pacifiction,” the latest baroque provocation from writer/director Albert Serra, follows—but not too close!—the smirking De Roller (Benoît Magimel), a smooth-talking French official who is more slippery—and possibly dangerous?—than he appears.
De Roller greases a lot of wheels and maintains a lot of static, mutually beneficial relationships. He’s also a human-shaped mask and a symbol of political insecurity in a former colony that, in “Pacifiction,” continues to be influenced by lingering creditors. Everybody looks to De Roller for support as rumors of nuclear testing spread across the island. He’s predictably unhelpful, because how could he be? He symbolizes one hand washing the other ad infinitum; he’s a comically vacant hustler. De Roller’s banal and unrevealing behavior also eventually reflects his creators’ shallowness.
Everybody’s a storyteller in “Pacifiction,” but their scheming is rarely as compelling as their collaboration’s blunt seamlessness. In dreamy medium close-ups, we see Tahiti as a nightclub where late-night discussions extend and sag past coherence. High-powered men, like De Roller or the French Admiral (Marc Susini)—whom De Roller constantly chases after—still never fully tip their hands. They hiss at and even talk down to locals, like the strident but chilly organizer Matahi (Matahi Pambrun) or the self-absorbed Shannah (Pahoa Mahagafanau), who says that she hopes to replace De Roller’s assistant.
De Roller’s flirtatious reassurances and easy-going questions continue without a clear end or goal. He dismisses conservative island elders, but also talks solicitously to a Christian priest, about low church attendance and ways of attracting new followers. De Roller also pours a drink for an already hungover Portuguese diplomat (Alexandre Melo) and then tells a hotel employee that Melo, playing an unresponsive tourist, obviously can’t handle his liquor. The diplomat’s passport has also gone missing. De Roller suggests this sort of thing doesn’t usually happen in Tahiti, so you know it must be true.
De Roller gets along with Matahi in one scene, but then overtly—though inconclusively—clashes with him. De Roller also cozies up with Shannah, whose ambiguous gender exemplifies Serra’s own fetishistic interest in haziness as a rebuke to narrative and symbolic tidiness. In the movie’s press notes, Serra applauds himself for his representation of De Roller and Shannah’s “undefined relationship,” which he thinks might be “something that has never been seen in a film before.” I have my doubts, especially since De Roller asks for Shannah’s contact information after he calls her a “carnivorous beast” and a “lioness.” She responds by smiling and writing down her information in De Roller’s little black book. Does she like the attention? Does she like De Roller? It doesn’t really matter, but neither does the immutable stasis that this relationship apparently represents.
The threat of nuclear testing provides some urgency, but not much. And while De Roller makes for a charming cypher, he’s not always the main subject of “Pacifiction.” Sometimes it’s the Admiral, Shannah, or Matahi. Usually, “Pacifiction” revolves around De Roller’s insinuating questions and placating gestures, which only reveal his own impotence. He drunkenly compares “politics” to a nightclub that’s completely shut off from reality. De Roller also says that he wants to throw on the lights, just to look into “their defeated faces one by one,” but he never does, and it’s never clear who “they” might be.
De Roller’s paranoia speaks for itself. Does he know anything about nuclear tests? Maybe, but not enough to stop him from wordlessly prowling the island with a pair of binoculars, looking for French Marines and/or Matahi’s group of disaffected natives. Maybe there will be a conflict someday. Not in “Pacifiction,” of course, but you can imagine something like that happening given the voracious emptiness lurking behind De Roller’s easy patter, his white linen suit, his horn-rimmed sunglasses, and his tart smile.
Magimel capably sells his character, but Serra doesn’t say much about De Roller, whose devilish behavior is only so compelling. Banality is the point, as De Roller suggests when he casually dominates Matahi during a heated conversation: “You’re talking to a representative of the State.” Because De Roller is a High Commissioner representing France and his inaccessible nature is also very much the point of “Pacifiction.”
Or a point. “Pacifiction” takes place in yet another dark, exotic, and artificial in-between place, which is also the point. The distant hum of the surf, the woozy throb of the club’s bass, and the flickering silhouettes cast by disco ball lighting. Some Hawaiian shirts and bronzed skin; some irresolute dialogue about secret alliances and open secrets. This isn’t a story, but an evocative collection of asked-and-answered prompts. You buy a ticket to “Pacifiction” and then you react, until the nudging stops.
Now playing in select theaters.