Subversive cinema or pretentious news? The uncompromising Catalan Albert Serra gives cinephiles a headache with Pacifiction, half paranoid tropical thriller, half exotic postcard, one hundred percent elusive.
For years, Catalan filmmaker Albert Serra has baffled international film critics and festivals such as Cannes and Ghent with elusive, radical cinema. In 2019, he impressed with Liberté, a more than two-hour long depiction of a libertine forest regime in pre-revolutionary France. Recorded in Tahiti Position he finally gets another chance in the Flemish cinemas. Sit back and enjoy the palm trees and sea view? Not quite.
“We have too often made pleasant films. Contemporary cinema must dare to break new ground by, for example, experimenting with what is uncomfortable for the viewer,’ says Serra with a twinkle in his eye. ‘So many films and series try to be as readable as possible. Every crease is smoothed out, every difficulty averted. The natural complexity and ambiguity of the image is destroyed, and that makes me sad.’ He himself prefers to stroke the hair. ‘I seek fiery complexity. With me, you can’t guess what someone is going to say, how a scene is going to end, or where the movie is going to go. It makes my films bizarre, but also hypnotic.’
What does it all mean? I never think about that now.
Position comes to the mind of the French High Commissioner on the French Polynesian island of Tahiti. Rejecting activists, tribute to the indigenous culture, giving pompous speeches in his white tropical costume and immersing himself in the sultry, decadent atmosphere of the nightclub Paradise Nights: The Roller (Benoît Magimel) rejoices in his neocolonial paradise. Until it dawns on him that the rumors of hidden nuclear submarines, spies and soldiers are not empty. Everything points to it Position becomes a paranoid tropical thriller, but it is not. The film drifts further and further into a lethargic fever dream in sunnier shades than Paul Gauguin dared to allow himself. Think of a corruption of ParallaxView directed by a clone of Douglas Sirk and David Lynch with the experimentalism of European writers like Pedro Costa or Peter Greenaway.
You don’t need to ask Serra for an explanation. The mischievous provocateur is fine with the viewer not knowing what to think of his work. ‘What does it all mean? What does the film have to say? Now I never think about that,” he says with a wall-to-wall grin. ‘I would write a book if I had something to say about colonialism, sexuality or politics. The theme of the film is an afterthought that I only discover long after the film has finished, mainly through the commentary on the film. I don’t work with meaning, I work with images, and I force myself to escape clichés.’
The Catalan free agent swears by an unorthodox method. ‘I seek out the chaos. In this case, by filming in Tahiti, a very isolated island. To reach New Zealand or Hawaii, you have to fly for four hours. It takes forever to get there, or to get out. I had a vague universal story in my head of tension, suspicion and paranoia. This comes into its own better in an exotic location. I fill in the exotic very clichéd. Position does not describe the world, but depicts one’s perception of the world. Palm trees, sunsets, waves, sea, discos, native culture, native beauties and even mahu or that rae rae people between men and women: the film is almost a postcard from Tahiti. A postcard from Paradise Lost or Decaying. But the actors’ hyper-realistic way of acting is anything but cliché, and that makes it fascinating.’
Serra leaves his actors to themselves, uses three cameras and allows the filming to continue indefinitely. ‘My system is based on variation and a lack of communication with the actors. I want as much fabric as possible in all possible directions. I ended up with 540 hours of footage this time. During the editing, I again work chaotically and arbitrarily. For example, I choose images because I like the red color of the lamp, the reflection of the light on a car or the way a dress falls over a girl’s legs. I let three mechanics tinker with it separately. Meaning is not a concern, we look for aesthetic, mental or physical coherence.’
Which one Position sometimes testing the viewer’s patience is a desired effect. ‘It’s an island. No matter where you go, you always end up in the same place, with the same people, the same actions. The paranoia intensifies, the situation becomes more and more disturbing, but it never comes to a clear conclusion. You spin around forever. The constant anticlimax actually clashes with traditional dramaturgy. Nothing happens. The viewer gets tired of it, starts looking around and maybe even develops a subtle aversion to the image. But the physical experience creates space for another, highly plastic, hypnotic experience. It is of course daring. Sometimes I rub against abstraction. But if you don’t dare, you don’t win’.
From 11.01 in the cinema.
Born in 1975 in Banyoles, Catalonia.
Debuted in 2006 with Honor de cavalleriaInspired by Don Quixote.
Impressed of The death of Louis XIV (2016), about the Sun King’s theatrical death days and daring Liberty (2019).
Became thanks to his strange, cinematographically strong films, the new chouchou of die-hard cinephiles and film festivals.