Contemporary Limbo: Albert Serra’s ‘Pacifiction’

by Alonso Aguilar

If there’s something that strings together the films of Albert Serra, it’s their almost morbid fascination with the end of history. No matter the particular setting or conceptual exercise in question, everything eventually devolves into the dense and intoxicating atmosphere only present in those last few moments of darkness before a new dawn. The thrill of seeing bastions of society crumble in real time, the pervading sense of quiet reluctance as the doomsday clock moves forward, the grimy and unkempt edges of a world whose hope of subsisting is quickly fading away… these are some of the recurring themes that permeate all of Serra’s fiction output so far, and what tends to fluctuate is the sociocultural veneer in front of them. 

From the tragicomic figures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza trying to safekeep the lost grandeur of chivalry in Honor de cavalleria (2006), to the faltering body of France’s greatest king in La mort de Louis XIV (2016), the Catalan filmmaker has made a career of reframing icons of Western history through his perverse immersion in decadence, be it physical, philosophical or moral. Pacifiction, his latest work, doesn’t really stray too far from these established foundations, yet by engaging with the chaotic milieu of modernity, new avenues open up for Serra’s idiosyncratic style. 

The vibrant hues of the Pacific sunrise and Tahiti’s dense, tropical soundscapes come to the forefront in Pacifiction’s initial seconds, but this deceitfully paradisiacal facade rapidly gives way to a more oppressive atmosphere. Men in official uniforms disembark on a desolate pier, and are suddenly transferred to a shady nightclub where neon lights and scantily clad local waiters battle for their attention. An apparently never-ending loop of folk Polynesian music and gaudy palm tree and tiki decor make it apparent that it’s an enclave for foreigners within the island, a kind of hedonistic fortress where French marines, mysterious men in shirts with tacky prints, and corrupt politicians can all hold their own fantastical idea of the island without having to engage with any of its real-life implications. 

This aforementioned mindset doesn’t feel so distant from Serra’s own relationship with Tahiti as a setting. As he has done in all his previous efforts, the thrust of his works isn’t historicity, period detail or even sociocultural depth. Just like the desolate German woods that serve as the libertines’ playground of excess in Liberté (2019), or the gothic lands of Northern France that see Casanova meet up with Dracula at the end of Historia de la meva mort (2013), his protagonist’s immediate surroundings exist almost as an impressionistic reflection of their own psyche. 

In Pacifiction, Tahiti is seen through claustrophobic frames crammed with bodies in closed quarters and desolate public spaces constructed as if time had no bearing at all. After all, De Roller’s (Benoit Magimel) negligent figure is what guides the film in its detached and ever-flowing structure. The French government official’s flamboyant white suit and iconic shades perfectly embody his nonchalant manner, as a political conspiracy that involves a decolonial faction organizing a resistance movement and an apparent secret plan for nuclear testing by a Western power all happen around him. De Roller’s role is little more than that of an aimless drifter just stumbling from place to place and shrugging at his own powerlessness. 

The film’s aura is not unlike a decadent and neon lit ‘50s spy thriller, to the point that Serra’s formal mannerisms expand toward a less confrontational relationship with the viewer. His characteristic long takes, wide, static shots and unorthodox blocking are still an important part of Pacifiction, but his aesthetic repertoire does embrace the classical pulp set-up of political intrigue in an exotic setting. 

Serra makes cinematic artifice as central as it’s ever been in his oeuvre by way of a haunting and eclectic drone score and a newfound appreciation for more traditional middle and portrait shots. Even if the elegiac atmosphere and ethereal nature of the whole endeavor feel closer to a stream of consciousness than a “tight narrative”, this moody romanesque of colonial angst does feel like the director’s most accessible work yet. 

Despite being the first time Serra bypasses playing with signifiers associated with a particular historical iconography, De Roller’s hideous chest tattoo and incompetence can be understood as a personification of the film’s core concept, which the controversial director has called “contemporary trash” during development. 

Throughout Pacifiction’s scattered plot, Western emissaries mainly represent either bumbling buffoons or stoic schemers. Whichever side they seem to take in the opaque power struggle happening behind the scenes, they’re all smugly betting on being part of a status quo that might’ve vanished a long time ago. The despair of accepting their fall from grace is too much of a burden to bear. Not unlike the dying monarchs and anachronic provocateurs of the Catalan auteur’s historical films, they seek out urgent action as a way to mitigate their approaching irrelevance, but the harrowing difference is that they do have the means to burn everything to the ground along the way. 

Once Pacifiction’s credits start to roll, Serra’s subversion of his own aesthetic identity seems less a new provocation, and more a conscious renewal of his creative vision; an adaptation to the conceptual requirements of approaching the times of “contemporary trash”, where the end of history feels as literal as it’s ever been.  

Alonso Aguilar is a Costa Rican writer, critic and programmer. His writings have featured in Mubi Notebook, Bandcamp Daily, Hyperallergic, photogénie and Cinema Tropical, among other outlets.

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