Movie Review: A French High Commissioner struggles with “Pacification” in Modern Polynesia

The job of “High Commissioner” of a set of islands in French Polynesia has to be any bureaucrat’s dream posting.

Wear lots of white linen suits, make the occasional speech, sit down with local politicians and opinion leaders over fresh seafood, chauffeured in a white Mercedes limo with an island-hopping charter plane at his disposal, and drinks at Morton’s nightclub every night, where the wait staff — male, female and mahu — are scantily-clad more for tourist’s gawking than any local custom or tradition.

In “Pacification,” High Commissioner De Roller (Benoît Magimel), seems to have this routine down pat, especially the linen suit and floral shirt uniform. But in the latest “slow cinema” longeur by Catalan filmmaker Albert Serra (“The Death of Louis XVI”), he will be tested by what he sees, what he hears and what he comes to recognize about this island “paradise” and its people in relation to the rest of the world.

There are “rumors” that the conservative French government wants to flex a little muscle and re-start nuclear testing on uninhabited islets in the atoll. He must break this unofficial “news” to the people, and pacify them by assuring them that he’s on their side. De Roller knows the cancer stats that accompanied earlier decades of nuclear explosions.

There’s this hotel that was built on an ancient graveyard, and abandoned. Getting that renovated and opened would seem to be a priority in a world famous tourist destination (this was filmed on Moorea and Tahiti).

A mysterious Portuguese drunk (Alexandre Melo) has been robbed of his papers in a hotel and an island with almost no crime.

De Roller doesn’t trust his state-appointed assistant, and would prefer to recruit a patient local hotel clerk, Shannah (Pahoa Mahagafanau) for the job. He flirts with Shannah shamelessly, getting her “information” (phone, address, etc) because colonialism has its privileges. Shannah is Mahu, transgender in a culture that has been accepting of that sexuality long before it was “cool.”

And why is that submarine admiral (Marc Susini) spending so much time ashore? He’s so lecherous he could be a crewman on the H.M.S. Bounty, so tipsy that the outspoken, unfiltered De Roller refers to him as a “pimp” thanks to his efforts to bring “girls” aboard his (never seen) boat for its crew.

The natives are concerned, forced to consider their position with the renewed threat of radiation imposed by a colonial power, men forced to reckon with (in French and Polynesian) their legacies — “Grandpa, what did you do to defend this land and sea?”

The admiral? He just orders another drink and reassures no one with his “Try to be cheerful, be more lighthearted. Everything will be fine.”

Serra has a reputation for on-screen patience, and films that test ours. There’s no avoiding the fact that he wastes a lot of the viewers’ time immersing us in this world. But the fact that it’s French Polynesia makes that less of a gripe than you might think.

This late colonialism story could have been comic, and never is, could have managed more drama and intrigue as we watch the traditional collide with the new, where the elders are reliably pro-French but the young aren’t shy about threatening the high commissioner with protests where “We’ll get our pictures” and France will look awful on the international stage, “fake news” or not.

Magimel, of “The Piano Teacher,” cuts a dashing figure as our guide to this wonderland that could be disturbed by actions so tone-deaf and lunkheaded they could only be committed by the French. Or the British. Or Italians or Chinese or Americans.

De Roller swans through this story with a puzzled, even-tempered elan, a man out of his element but never disoriented, confident but taking no chances.

Serra says he shot 500 hours of footage on location, 200 hours with dialogue. That may be why he’s released a movie, honored by critics in France, that seems somewhat lost.

The film he’s delivered doesn’t have the narrative drive one typically expects from a movie loosely describable as a “thriller.” It’s not all that coherent either, a filmic piece of flotsam that one and all drift along with, touching on themes but never wrestling with them, glimpsing the sights but never really showing them to us.

Unless you’re speaking of the surf and the bare breasts. Lots of footage of those.

Accounts of the “H,M.S. Bounty’s” visit here always play up the intoxicating nature of this corner of the world, so paradisical that it inspired a mutiny. One wonders if Serra just became the latest Fletcher Christian to get lost there, and do it on his producers’ bank account.

Rating: unrated, nudity, sexual situations

Cast: Benoît Magimel, Pahoa Mahagafanau, Marc Susini, Montse Triola, Sergi López and Alexandre Melo

Credits: Scripted and directed by Albert Serra, dialogue by Baptiste Pinteaux. A Grasshopper film release.

Running time: 2:44


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
This entry was posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news. Bookmark the permalink.