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Pacifiction review – trouble in paradise, in apocalyptic Tahitian mystery

Benoît Magimel’s French high commissioner confronts the end of his personal Eden in Tahiti, in Albert Serra’s distinctive film

Albert Serra’s bizarre epic is a cheese-dream of French imperial tristesse, political paranoia and an apocalyptic despair. It is a nightmare that moves as slowly and confidently as a somnambulist, and its pace, length, and Serra’s beautiful widescreen panoramic framings – in which conventional drama is almost camouflaged or lost – may divide opinion. I can only say I was captivated by the film and its stealthy evocation of pure evil.

Admirers of Serra’s previous movies The Death of Louis XIV and Liberté will know what an uncompromisingly original and startling film-maker he is. That distinctiveness is certainly on display with this new spectacle, but with intriguing new hints of David Lynch and Nicolas Winding Refn. (Refn famously directed Agatha Christie’s Marple on British TV; perhaps Albert Serra will turn out to have done some uncredited work on Death In Paradise.) The setting is Tahiti, part of French Polynesia and thus part of the French republic; its lush coasts and landscapes are evoked with breathtaking flair, yet with something lowering in their beauty, something sinister imposed upon them from above or a haze they have had to generate from below.

Benoît Magimel (who seems to be morphing into Gérard Depardieu before our very eyes) is M de Roller, the French high commissioner who strolls around with raffish entitlement in his rumpled white suit, a breezy sleazy fellow who enjoys patronising all ranks of the Tahiti population. He hangs out at the local club owned by Morton, another white expatriate, played by the reliably unsettling Sergi López, and De Roller grinningly ogles the almost naked bar staff and glad-hands all the other seedy officials there. He also loves hanging out with the semi-clad indigenous dancers who perform traditional dances for the tourists and, like a poundshop Paul Gauguin, fancies himself a connoisseur of their traditions. He has also fallen in love with the dancers’ choreographer Shannah (Pahoa Mahagafanau).

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