The Natives Are Restless: Cannes’ Diamond Jubilee and Albert Serra’s “Pacifiction”

By Mark Peranson

The 75th anniversary celebration of Cannes was very much a “celebration of cinema,” a my-God-it’s-full-of-stars-studded affair intended as a show of power that, rightly, would make any other such movie-based event jealous. As witnessed by its anniversary trailer, which added (seemingly via Photoshop) the names of Cannes-branded auteurs like Federico Fellini, Xavier Dolan, and Maïwenn to the famed red steps as they ascend toward the heavens to Le carnaval des animaux, Cannes waved its big balls high in the air, proving that they are able to attract seemingly anyone in the film world it wanted (except for David Lynch), and have the money to fly them in for a couple of nights, show their faces and pose for pictures on the red carpet wearing sponsored designer garments and gems, and eat a gourmet meal prepared by a two-star Michelin chef. “Celebration” is indeed the appropriate word, as Cannes is not so much a “festival” in the way that the rest of the film world considers a festival a festival, what with the almost total lack of a general public aside from the “Cannes cinephiles” and the occasional Riviera resident who might walk the red carpet then vacate the premises the second they find out the film they’re about to watch is 165 minutes long and the most famous French celebrity on hand is Benoît Magimel. Forget about Cannes—this thing might as well take place on the moon. 

As life on the Croisette very much returned to a pre-2020 normalcy, more so than ever I felt surrounded by not just vulgarity and bad taste but also pure, unabashed elitism. The ultimate awarding of the festival’s main prize to an intermittently amusing feel-bad comedy that makes fun of rich people left quite the rotten taste of shit in our collective mouth, and presented an irony that flew fully over the heads of the event’s organizers. By, for, and about the elites, Cannes truly is a hermetically sealed echo chamber where success isn’t only measured by the standing ovations, but by how long they last—to the point that this year’s Variety coverage depressingly (though not unpredictably) ran with just that, as almost each official Competition screening was followed by an immediate post with a headline detailing how many minutes patrons, many of whom were involved in making said film, were on their feet applauding (themselves, for being there and bearing witness). 

The sense of detachment from an engaged reality—notwithstanding nods to Ukraine via Zelensky’s opening-night Zoom appearance (Cannes 1, Oscars 0) and the last-minute addition of Mariupolis 2—was compounded by the continued episodes of sexism bordering on misogyny. Besides the typical lack of women directors in Competition, Kelly Reichardt (she of the “little film,” to quote Frémaux from his opening press conference—one of the best in show, and her prize was showing up) and Léonor Serraille were placed in the final two Competition slots on the last Friday, and there were still women who were scolded for wearing flat shoes on the red carpet. But wait, there’s more: racism against Canadian Indigenous peoples (no traditional moccasins allowed on the red carpet either), Blacks (see the Deadline piece for some truly horrifying stuff), and, down the road in the Quinzaine, Italians (adieu Paolo Moretti, and thank you for your service). Cannes is firmly located in Le Pen country, and boy does it show. 

One group the festival certainly doesn’t discriminate against is the elderly: counting the Dardennes as one director, the average age of the four oldest filmmakers in Competition was 96. Perhaps instituting a strict age requirement for entry to Competition would allow a way for the make-up of Un Certain Regard to make some logical sense for once. I propose that only filmmakers who are as old as the edition of that year’s festival be allowed to submit a film to Competition—and, as old people tend to make shorter films, it would save us all a lot of time and maybe even allow Cannes to discover some new talent.

Trades aside, before I vamoosed out of Dodge early I could tell that the natives were restless, as a backlash was already growing against this year’s selection—and not just amongst likeminded critics to your picky correspondent here, who has little to say about most of the films he saw. Much of this might have to do with the punishing quality (and running times, oh the running times) of most of the films in Competition, widely regarded as one of the worst in recent years (the worst Cannes ever?), unless you happen to be Belgian or Belgian-friendly. Much of the cinema that Cannes seems to prefer is designed to repeatedly and without subtlety rub one’s nose in the globe’s manifest horrors, be it murdered prostitutes in Iran (Holy Spider, punishing and unbearable), idiot poor people in Iran (FIPRESCI winner Leila’s Brothers, a kind of soapy Succession for dummies), indentured servitude of African immigrants in Seraing (guess who?), teen suicide, also in Belgium (“Dhont do it,” I was warned), virulently racist small-town Romanians (Cristian Mungiu’s RMN, stuck in Mungiu mode), animal cruelty in Poland (EO), rich jerks swimming in their own shit and vomit on the high seas (the aforementioned Triangle of Sadness), pro-lifers in Korea (Broker), hysterical siblings in France (Arnaud Desplechin’s Frère et soeur), or, worst of all, young actors in training in ’80s France (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s homage to her craft Les amandines, a film that plays exactly as it sounds, with the added benefit of Chekhov for Oscar voters). For my money there’s not even a clear Best International Film Oscar winner in the bunch—though I guess, given the surprising success of Drive My Car (2021), truly anything can take the thing, so clear out a place for a little gold man on your mantel, Albert Serra.

In case you think this has nothing to do with taste, may I point to the rogue’s gallery of panelists the festival assembled for its two-part, truly uninsightful “state of the cinema” conference—the first one, naturally, being all men, all of them Cannes vets of (mostly) ill repute: Paolo Sorrentino, Guillermo del Toro, Claude Lelouch, Michel Hazanavicius, Gaspar Noé, Costa-Gavras, and Robin Campillo (oy vey). On the second “day of diversity,” those chiming in were Rebecca Zlotowski, Abderrahmane Sissako, Abel Ferrara, Lynne Ramsay, Laurent Cantet, Pawel Pawlikowski, Joachim Lafosse and, again, del Toro, as clearly he had too much to opine on vis-à-vis the state of cinema to be contained in one session, and Iñarritu was otherwise occupied. (Ladies and gentlemen, the filmmakers of the 2023 Cannes Competition.)

Compared to last year’s comparatively stellar spit-test edition, Cannes 2022 managed what many considered to be impossible: it made me miss the halcyon days of COVID. Back to full capacity but still showing the effects of the pandemic, Cannes kept their online booking system, and, to the surprise of nobody, 7 a.m. risers looking for prized seats were met with the twirling circle of death. The disaster that was this year’s Cannes website has been detailed elsewhere, though I sincerely doubt the argument that the ticketing problems were caused by Russian bots. But, in all seriousness, what might have been the distinguishing strength of Cannes 2021 was the fact that many of the films didn’t have to rush to get finished in time for submission (let alone screening) because so many were already done for 2020, and Cannes was forced to delay last year’s proceedings to July. Oh, for the days when the only filmmaker who dared send an unfinished film to Cannes was Wong Kar-wai!

More and more, it is a typical circumstance that films are submitted to Cannes as late as possible, leading to films being premiered that either aren’t totally finished, like James Gray’s autobiographical Armageddon Time (apparently lacking final VFX, which I don’t think will be used to transform the entire cast of goys into believable Jews), or are far too long and/or need more editing (there’s a good 90 minutes in the mostly likeable Jury Prize co-winner The Eight Mountains, a late addition, and there are probably another 20 more that are acceptable). It’s well known that Claire Denis was a wreck in Paris finishing Stars at Noon less than a week before her premiere, for example. (Would another month or so of work helped the film? Hard to say, though she could have used the extra time to improve it by digitally replacing Joe Alwyn with Robert Pattinson.) That said, all the major festivals invite films previewed in various states of incompletion on a regular basis. At some point, you need to pity the poor programmer: I heard from one Quinzaine selection committee member that they had to process 20 DCPs a day in the week before the press conference—though maybe it was 40, or maybe it was 40 in a week. But unless you’re sitting on the TikTok jury, what’s really the difference at this point? It is a truism that too many films are being made, but it’s also undeniable that more than 99 percent of them won’t show in Cannes, so please, filmmakers and producers, have some perspective.

The one positive takeaway is that with such randomness on display, for the first time in 20-plus years I had the feeling that, one day, with the right producers, French actors, and sales company, and a script that somehow touches on the world’s historical or present-day horrors or both, I too could make a film that would be invited to play in Competition at Cannes. (I do in fact have an idea, and would only need about $12 million; I guess I can’t give Netflix a call anymore. I am afraid that this film would last about three hours, but all things considered maybe that’s in my favour.) But what music would I choose for my montée des marches? Depending on the time of day, of course, what initially pops to mind would be “Shadrach” by the Beastie Boys, “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You” by Bob Dylan (live Rolling Thunder, of course, but only if it’s a primetime slot), “We’ve Only Just Begun” by The Carpenters, Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” (or its variant, John Williams’ “The Imperial March”), the Lambada, or, for those in the know, the John Buck Wilkin cover of “Me and Bobby McGee.” Or maybe that tiddley-doo song that’s played when an alley of clowns tumble into the circus ring, you know the one (it’s called “Entry of the Gladiators”—actually, that should replace the Saint Saens in next year’s Cannes trailer).

These thoughts were spurred on by being told that for the montée des marches for this year’s best film in Competition—which to this biased commentator (and, surprise, to many others!) was Pacifiction—Albert Serra had chosen to walk up the fabled Lumière steps to the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby,” and, according to him, “the greatest cover of all time,” which naturally meant Trini Lopez’s version of Ian and Sylvia’s “Four Strong Winds” (unlike my take on the Competition, in this case I can agree to disagree). I was unable to be present for this monumentous and unexpected event, as the day before I had journeyed across the Atlantic to Canada for my brother’s wedding only to be met by the same Triennes rosé that graces the top of most traditional Cannes bistrot cartes de vin. I did manage to confirm that these songs were actually played by catching the red-carpet stream online, a feed made notable for the fact that the Cannes TV commentator seemed to think the name of Serra’s film is Pacification, which could have easily been an automatic spellcheck error by whomever prepared her notes. (All of us writing about the film can certainly relate.) 

But who could blame anyone for this titular confusion, as for its entire development, shooting (in French Polynesia during COVID), and editing the film was called Bora Bora,despite the fact it was neither set nor shot on Bora Bora (it’s still one of the best of all titles). Then, when the film was announced in Cannes, there appeared a French title, Tourment sur les îles, and eventually, when the program went online, the rest is history. After all that, the current handle is an appropriate title for a passive/Pacific fiction about a self-identifying “man of action” who comes to realize he is in fact powerless.

If you can’t surmise from this anecdote, Pacifiction was one of those now commonplace last-minute additions to the Official Selection, and it’s here that the exception proves the rule. The end product is even more miraculous due to the rush to get it done to screen on the last Thursday—Serra was in Paris the previous Saturday during the festival to approve the final sound (and he still finished before Claire Denis). The prototypical wild-card Competition selection—albeit one with a French star, almost entirely in French (with a smattering of Portuguese and English), and kind of “about” French colonialism and politics, in a satisfyingly murky kind of way—Pacifiction landed as a life-saving UFO to reveal much that preceded it as tomfoolery, and also surely managed to fatigue a fair share of its audience (and probably the jury) with its well-merited 165 minutes, which translates to 660 OG TikToks; a consummate mood piece, it could be longer and lose none of its impact. 

More answers to such questions as, “What can cinema do? What is its future?” can be gleaned from Pacifiction than any ad-hoc press conference of Cannes stalwarts. The latest entry in an ongoing search for an anti(hetero)-normative filmmaking, in terms of both process and output, Pacifiction follows perhaps Serra’s most audience-unfriendly (and anti-normative) feature, Liberté (2019), and is the closest thing to perfect he can perhaps allow himself to do. Despite the echoes in Pacifiction of such films as Chinatown (1974) or Saint Jack (1979) or the literary creations of Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad, the true patron saints hovering over Serra’s South Seas are once more Fassbinder and Warhol, and the narrative DNA—there is a plot here, even if it is not fully resolved (although it fails to resolve in a very satisfying manner)—can be traced back to Serra’s underseen 13-hour installation masterpiece, Singularity (2015), which Serra has described as “a fictitious world built around an idea…not so much a dramaturgy of action or representation, but rather of presence.”

What could account for the wider recognition paid to Serra this time around—aside from a more traditional edit, length notwithstanding—might be attributed to the presence of the newest addition to his growing ensemble, Benoît Magimel. Robbed of a Best Actor award because, as the film itself illustrates, there is no justice in the world, Magimel, in his double-breasted white suit and constant shades, commands the screen as the logorrheic, personable High Commissioner De Roller, a bearish man of many monologues who never met a pot of honey he couldn’t resist tasting. Scanning at times as a somewhat less scuzzy Denis Leary (or even Chris Farley) but ultimately entirely Serra, Magimel’s De Roller is a big ego who is at once a political pacifier, a cultural attaché, a Don Juan, a high-seas jet-skier (how exactly is he going to “help” the local surf champion?), and, confirming the reading of him as a directorial surrogate, even seemingly a dramaturg to a local theatre troupe rehearsing for a costumed performance that involves live on-stage cockfighting. 

As we meet and come to know De Roller we believe him to be altruistic, but when meeting with local politicians on a small island he acknowledges he’s being “squeezed like a lemon” by all of these demands. The self-doubt and paranoia set in because the trust he’s placed in the French government that he serves is being disabused, and, even worse, it happens behind his back. In a film in which characters ominously lurk in the background and rumours are constantly being spread, the one that propels the drama is that, after 20 years, the French are set to resume nuclear testing in the islands. And that, for good reason, makes the natives restless. (One thing that might surprise viewers is the respect the film pays to the Polynesian residents, who are rewarded major parts in the film—the standout being RaeRae/Mahu third-gender actor Pahoa Mahagafanau, who plays Shannah, hotel desk clerk and object of De Roller’s affections—and certainly come across as superior to their French colonizers.)

But the presence of a minor Gallic celebrity isn’t enough to account for this success. After all, Serra’s entry to Cannes’ big league, La mort de Louis XIV (2016), starred none other than Jean-Pierre Léaud (admittedly spending 90 percent of the film in bed), and we all know about the superstar who is Lluís Serrat, here ADR-ing himself in French on the staff of Morton’s, a Fassbinderian nightclub run by a lamé-sporting Sergi López. There is also the full-blown Tahitian ambience, achieved through tropical melodies (Marc Verdauger’s pulsating, mood-setting score is what film music should be) and local colour: in a film that gets progressively darker both metaphorically and literally, Artur Tort’s cinematography wrings wonders out of the chromatic spectrum, from the red skies at dusk established in the opening shot to the disco blues of the interiors of Morton’s, where, in the film’s last act, Liberté’s Comte Marc Susini, here playing a French admiral (the contemporary equivalent), takes to the dance floor to Freddy Butler’s Detroit soul track “I Like Your Style” (itself a decent red-carpet tune). And, being Tahiti, the verdancy of nature is omnipresent, betraying a potentially terrifying island in not-so-hidden decay—an impression that is driven home by a creepy encounter between De Roller and two interlopers shot in a fascinatingly dilapidated glass-walled, modern hotel.  

And then there’s the unmistakable deep-blue waters of the South Pacific. The jaw-dropping moment that seals Pacifiction’s appeal and makes the rest of the film irresistible comes offshore, as De Roller—barefoot, but still wearing the white suit—bobs alongside crashing 50-foot waves as one of many onlookers to a surfing competition. While Michael Mann has likely never been cited as an analogue for Serra, this type of epic scene is only graspable by a fearless filmmaker whose well-known three-moving-camera setup, which produces long takes resulting in hundreds of hours of footage, leaves literally anything open to happen during a shoot in terms of capturing images or improvising dialogue, and also allows for flexibility in terms of locations (and what locations they found), or, indeed, convincing Benoît Magimel to risk his life on a jet ski. It’s an openness to the deep mysteries of the world, and an invitation to imagine a cinema where abstract concepts find concrete expressions, yet all the while allowing oneself to get lost in it and enjoy (I did not yet mention that, like all of Serra’s work, Pacifiction is funny). 

Pacifiction distinguishes itself not only from contemporary cinema’s increasingly prevalent televisual style (one also associated historically with a three-camera setup), but also from almost all other films in Cannes this year, and its widespread acclaim is the most gratifying and hopeful development of Cannes’ 75th year. To survive, cinema must continue to amaze and confound.