On the Edge of Failure: Albert Serra Discusses "Pacifiction"

The Catalan provocateur delves into the unique process of creating his new film about imperialism and nuclear paranoia in Tahiti.
Christopher Small


Pitched somewhere between Apocalypse Now (1979), the early films of Alan J. Pakula, and Jacques Rivette’s Noroît (1976), Albert Serra’s loose, languorous 165-minute Pacifiction is, like all of the miscellania he has produced for cinema and elsewhere over the years, unlike anything else you can get your eyes on. Tedious, enchanting, and overlong, Serra’s magical, Graham Greene-like follow-up to Liberté (2019) is another diametric opposite in a career built on decisive variations and provocative contrasts. Serra’s orgiastic last film began with the slowly fading light of sunset and ended with it reappearing with the rising of the sun; in between, masked libertines tugged clumsily and fitfully at each other’s organs in lick-after-lick, grind-after-grind, and fuck-after-fuck of a protracted outdoor sex bonanza. That film was set entirely within the confines of a forest, in which aristocrats first elaborate on their most depraved sexual fantasies and then bask in some version of them. In the ever-expanding narrative of Pacifiction, a French politician (Benoît Magimel) struts around Tahiti, embroils himself in local disputes, and becomes increasingly paranoid over whether his government is hiding nuclear submarines off the coast (pacific fiction—get it?), the presence of which would be particularly foreboding given the history of nuclear testing in Polynesia the 20th century. In a reversal of Liberté, the interioristic fantasy (now paranoid and political and largely not sexual in nature) follows the physicality: at some point, quotidian practicalities (sinister political wheeling and dealing) gives way to a phantasmagorical world of irrepressible paranoid delusion.

As is always the case in Serra, everything is loose and extreme: protracted stretches of uncanniness, portentously suggestive, improvised conversation, and an uneasily peaceful air of quiet—something, as Serra remarked in our conversation, exacerbated by the strictures imposed on a shoot that took place during the pandemic and evidently capitalized upon by the director—intermingled with spasmodic, ungainly, often thrilling bursts of action. After premiering in the Cannes Competition in May, Pacifiction then made its way along the coast to FIDMarseille, where it was the centerpiece of the seven-part retrospective “Albert Serra en libertés!” Against the backdrop of his previous films, with the single settings of Liberté and The Death of Louis XIV (2016), and the late medieval and early Renaissance settings of virtually all his other films, Serra’s shift to Pacifiction’s expansive environs of the Polynesian archipelago and delirious vision of the present day is startling. But the inclusion in Marseille’s retrospective of the lesser-known, thirteen-hour Warholian sitcom Singularity (2015), originally produced as a multiscreen installation for the Venice Biennale, and his road movie about the shooting of Honor de cavalleria (2006), the present-day-set The Lord Worked Wonders in Me (2011), belies the notion that Serra’s turn away from historical films is as unexpected as the director wryly suggests when he remarks that he made a change simply because he “got bored.” In Serra, the edge of failure must be aggressively courted, requiring constant shifts, breaks, adjustments, twists, and turns. Setting a film in the past or in the present for him is a matter more of texture than of cogent ideas or of intent; Pacifiction’s singular mood may have been spontaneously arrived at, but the intoxicating residue it leaves behind as a viewing experience is one difficult to shake off.

I spoke with the Catalan director about Pacifiction in an extended conversation following his retrospective at FIDMarseille. Among other things, we discussed his decision to set the film in Tahiti, about his Frederick Wiseman-like accumulation of material inside a fictional apparatus, and how not even the best editor in the world could have improved any of his films.

NOTEBOOK: Why Polynesia?

ALBERT SERRA: Frankly, I don’t know. What I know for sure is that I wanted an exotic location; I wanted to deal with the subject of a politician, a representative of the state, but at the same time I thought it would be boring to put it in an urban context, bureaucratic buildings, whatever. That would be a little too serious. So I said OK, let’s try to escape this documentary-like, conventional approach. Let’s create something a bit more artificial, something artificial in itself—decorative, also in the possible negative sense of the word. Something that is a little superficial, maybe. But it works, it’s exotic, a little bit extravagant. I like these colonies, or ex-colonies: all the contrasts, all the problems that we see, or that we have the intuition that are there. In these countries, these things are more visible from a graphic point of view. There isn’t so much of a middle class. Very poor people. I like to put it in this fantasy context and also a little bit more tense than if it was in a more normal political situation in a more familiar place. To escape to the bourgeois side of these kinds of images, more specifically. 

NOTEBOOK: Once you started to think of Bora Bora, Tahiti, was it just the idea of the politician in this space, walking around, interacting with people? Is this all you had to start with?

SERRA: Yeah. I wanted to give a little narrative touch to the film from the very beginning. This was one of the main goals. You have this famous actor, Benoît Magimel, so you cannot be ultra-radical and conceptual. Well, you can. But implicitly, you try to make an effort; he too made an effort to adapt. He did it in a very generous way. I also have to try to adapt. It should be a little narrative, OK—I like the French word, romanesque. There are little things happening here, and there, and here. Somebody moving. A life thing. Like Tristram Shandy or these novels in which there is somebody moving around in a very free way. It’s not that there’s a huge dramatic structure imposed upon the material. It doesn’t have to teach you anything. Just moving. Permanent movement. Following this guy all the time, him being the dead center of the action. I wanted a light touch. I thought that this would itself create a narrative; once you’d get used to him then you want to know more.

Then I guessed this would make the film less experimental, less conceptual. Apart from that, since I had no idea at the level of content—nor drama—everything else was then built by chance, based on discovering the actors we made use of. Places. Sensations. The film is simply an observation of the human in some way. But with little details here and there. Some politicians. Some normal people. Some tragic scenes. Random observations about the human condition. OK, at the end it’s true that there’s this story about the nuclear tests, the submarines, the paranoia, and so on. That he doesn’t know if any of these things are there or not, true or false. Which I like because it shows the gap between the super high levels of politics and our understanding. This decision-making is at such a high level that it is no longer connected with normal people, who merely suffer the consequences. At the same time, the film is a little bit ambiguous, no? It’s not that we have the pure natives and the bad colonialist who destroys the paradise. I like it this way. All the films you see today have this ideology: the natives are the good ones, and the others—whatever you call them—people from the Western countries, Western states, are the bad ones. I don’t know. When you go there, it is to avoid all these things that can create a specific kind of content, one we all agree on, and allow you to do something more mysterious or complex. This was my goal. It’s a strange situation because you want to love the place you’re shooting. You want to understand the problems of the people. But in fact, people never give you that—it’s a filmic cliché now. When you go there, and return, you think you will understand—no, your life just goes on. The point is that it is an innocence lost. Who are these people we’re looking at? You have to be like me to make this kind of film.  I have no prejudice about anything—for, against. I was there, I used the people I liked, showed the details I didn’t like. But in a very free way. In fact, I don’t have anything to say. I only have images.

NOTEBOOK: You use a phrase that Hitchcock used a lot. Whenever he would talk about what he was doing, he would say that his work was simply trying to avoid cliché. Just an extraordinary effort to avoid cliché.

SERRA: I didn’t know that Hitchcock said that. He’s quite right. Especially in those last films, where he is doing very strange things. If not, it’s boring. It’s like they say, all films today look like they were made by algorithms. Ideologically, all were made by algorithms. On the performance of actors, all were made by algorithms. The actors themselves are already algorithms. On the level of dramatic construction, all were made by algorithms. We don’t see films like, I don’t know, Pulp Fiction. Somebody making the effort to make it different. Everything now is so conventional. Sometimes you have these complex things, these interesting subjects. But that’s only on the level of subject. It’s journalism. Going in deep, very deep, on a subject. It’s complex, yes, but only on the level of the subject. It is not complex on the level of the form. If it’s not complex on the level of form—this is the old dévis of the surrealists and the real revolutionaries, that you can’t try to impose a revolutionary content if the form is not also revolutionary. This is also my motto. In this film, I was lucky. Somehow the stars aligned and it was possible to do it. I believe of course that I can do it better. It can be even more complex. More strange. The cinema of the future will follow this. Making it completely incomprehensible, impossible to understand. Because the cinema of the future will be more complex than real life—or at least on the same level. Never less. So you’ll be there in the cinema, astonished to see it on the screen. Just like you are astonished now following Russia’s war. Why are they doing this? Who decides this? What is the point? Who makes all these decisions? And you don’t understand, in fact. Simple answers don’t work. In this film, it is the same. Simple answers don’t work. You just have to think and enjoy it.

NOTEBOOK: Your style lends itself well to paranoia in general. Like Fritz Lang or Rivette, in different ways.

SERRA: Yes, but also because it is combined with an ultra-rough style of performance, with Magimel and the other actors. Ultra wild and ultra non-realistic. Like, you cannot even believe it. Sometimes, when he says some of those sentences, it looks impossible that an actor would get those lines and say them that way. That he can speak the sentence in such an extremely rough way. When you see actors, you see the script behind them. There was that one millisecond where they were, you know, copying what they already know to do. But here, no! He looks like that and says the line and the brain only works afterwards. It’s shocking, when combined with the abstraction of the plot, the abstraction of the mise-en-scène. It’s what makes the film original. Films that try to explore things like, for example, Annette—OK, it is exploring things on some levels, but then, since the actors are not that rough, you really feel that it is an “exploration”. You don’t ask yourself, in at least some brief moments, whether this is real fucking life or not. What is this? There is a moment at the end of Pacifiction, for example, where Magimel is on the boat alone. He smiles in a way that makes you say, “What is this? What is he doing?” Because it’s totally non-understandable in that context: so rough that it is real. So you can’t not believe it. You cannot escape the extreme disorientation it stirs in you. At the same time, there is nothing really relevant. I think it works well with this idea that he is in all scenes in the film. We share his view, and therefore we share his paranoia too. We are really inside the mind of somebody else, really in the dark about all these things. It’s a fusion.

NOTEBOOK: Can you talk about directing Benoît Magimel specifically? How did you prepare him for all this beforehand and how was that work in the moment?

SERRA: We used many different techniques. Every moment was different—sincerely. It’s quite strange because sometimes he’s talking very fast. When I tell people we sometimes used earphones for feeding lines and directing, people assume that I am talking about the scenes with the long dialogues in the discotheque, for example. But the guy who was always feeding the dialogue in those moments with the earphones, who would sit next to me and speak into the microphone, is there in that scene. In front of the camera. This was practically the only scene without earphones, in fact. I was always sitting next to him. My accent in French is not so good, so I was scared to say something that might confuse the actors. They won’t understand quickly and easily. So we had this souffleur [the off-camera whisperer]. He also played the role of the guy with the red shirt and the mustache, who wants to build a hotel. There were so many techniques that it’s impossible to say how we did it. Of course, we used three cameras, so this creates a special ambience. Or a special vulnerability for the actor. My capacity to adapt to every situation requires a new methodology. The mood of the actor. With whom he will perform. What is the content we intend to get closer to. Multiple things. It’s then always a decision based on intuition. But OK, in the end I had 540 hours of rushes so… I have material. I choose the best! [Laughs.] I choose the best of the 540. It’s the very best of 540 hours, so it must be good.

NOTEBOOK: It always seemed to me that the set itself was the stage for a kind of performance on your part, in these past couple of films in particular. You’ve limited everything so much, so you can then perform as a director. Guiding everybody. Causing chaos. But there are so many moving parts in this film. It’s kind of baffling to imagine how that could work in the way it might have for Liberté or The Death of Louis XIV.

SERRA: I didn’t need to push so much. It was more natural. Every day Magimel was arriving two or three hours late to the set. So this was already creating such a huge amount of tension between everybody because, you know, all the French technicians, they don’t care if the actor arrived two or three hours late. When it’s time, they leave. They didn’t need me to provoke any more tension. [Laughs.] I was there finally to make peace. I tried to make peace in a subtle way, at least, to tweak the images and not to interfere and to create this non-cliché atmosphere. But we had our problems too, and there was COVID—it was very tricky. We were right in the middle of it. We were lucky because a big part of the atmosphere of the film is due to this. For half of the film, we were shooting in a total state of lockdown on the island. We were allowed to shoot, but everything else was completely locked down. For that reason, it is a ghost island. You almost never see anybody, except in those scenes inside the discotheque. But that is a closed world in itself. You never see anything, nobody on the street, in the market. It helped to increase the sense of paranoia. 

NOTEBOOK: In the end this is a very oblique narrative film—you’re definitely pushing against the narrative urge wherever you can. But still, I’m curious to know where that itch came from, to make something with at least the semblance of story movement.

SERRA: Well, it’s more difficult. You have to direct actors in an original way, to create a fiction. This is the most difficult thing of all. It’s not easy to create the perfect balance: a fictional film that is not a cliché. The risk of this film is that it’s too abstract on the plot level, on the performance of actors, on the images. It’s difficult to assume this risk, unless you have done it many times. And for more normal productions with more budget or people who are used to shooting in a traditional way all these elements —actors, plot, script, whatever— help them to avoid the unnecessary risks. They want an actor that will never do anything wrong. OK. But he will never do anything strange, because if he does something strange and risky and it may be wrong. More chances make it more difficult. It’s not so easy, at least psychologically, that you have to take decisions and these decisions are based on an internal struggle between risk and profit. I can do it because I have my system of three cameras and a lot of things that are really complimentary with my way of working with actors. Without this, probably I would be dead. It would be a disaster and I would never be able to make another film. In fact, I am sure now that I will never shoot a film with one camera; I will never shoot a film in 35mm. I will never do it; I would be dead.

But with what I have, it works to enable me to get these kinds of images. And making the actors not cliché. Also during the edit, for example, I watched some of Magimel’s films very closely. The last ones. More commercial stuff. And so I understood him very well as a presence, what he does. I understood what he was doing in all these films. And then when I’m looking at the rushes of Pacifiction, I knew exactly when he got close to any of that. Even if it was in a very esoteric way, any moment that could, in my mind, recall or remind me of any of it—out, out, out, out. I cut it all. And I didn't care if it was the most important scene, or the most important dialogue, or the most important moment. It’s very difficult for a normal editor or filmmaker to do this, because if it is the most important scene of the film, in theory, or if it’s the most important dialogue, they keep it. They will never be as courageous or radical I was in doing that. Just because, esoterically, it might remind the audience a little bit of what the actor had has done before. But I do that. It would be strange to have a movie star, like Marion Cotillard, and then just cut all the scenes. You have to be prepared to do this. And you have to have shot far too much, in a way. If I am good in something, it is in that. I really go in deep with the potential of digital filmmaking. Not only digital filmmaking in the sense of shooting with digital cameras, but also in the editing with computers and technology, all the stuff we have. We can really mix all images of the film, cross everything, try infinitely, until we really find something interesting. People are not doing this because they have a script. They shoot the script. The editor is there, looks at the script, and checks the relevant images they receive from the set. It is a science. But not in my films—I know nothing of that. I don't have to be faithful to anything as an editor. I really, really go to the ultimate potential of digital technology and I stay there. Oh, I’m even increasing it, making it more interesting. Adding a lot of layers of the complexity of perception.

NOTEBOOK: When you when you're shooting the film, you're watching three feeds from three 4K cameras. And then when you're editing, you have three playing at the same time and you're sort of mixing it live for your own viewing of it all?

SERRA: First, I check all the rushes. I take my notes. I select all the things I like. And then we have to edit the film only with the things I like. But apart from that, there is an even greater problem of it being totally time-consuming. Because 540 hours, you have to do it with separate screens; I put a big screen with all three cameras in front of me and I was watching the rushes and taking notes on all three at the same time. When there was something more interesting or complex, I came back to one camera and then analyze each image one by one in a more serious way. It takes months to get through it, even with the three cameras in one single screen. So, yes, I do this, but it’s not a good idea because it means that you are inevitably losing things. And you are not doing that really, really serious and extreme job of watching and assimilating absolutely everything. But, I think it’s close enough. It’s time-consuming, but also there’s the fatigue. We cannot spend more than the seven, eight months we plan for. We spend seven days per week during seven and a half months editing the film. You cannot spend more. Because you will never start another project again, it’s too painful. It means that you have to be careful not to get completely exhausted too early because you have to keep going until the end. In this case, I was a little bit worried that if I spend the 540 hours going exactly through it all, camera by camera, I would lose the energy—I have three editors to help me but sometimes it's only me who watches the rushes. Then they edit using my notes. But still, I was scared this time. It’s true that not only for me, but for the other editors too, we are still tired; we couldn’t recover from this effort. It’s not a joke. Seven days a week looking at these images. We had eight days’ break from December 23 to January 2, 2021, to go rest back in Barcelona. Very hard. Very, very hard.

NOTEBOOK: What are the stages of the editing? I remember you said before that you know what images and ideas you’re looking for when you’re on the set. You've made films, you know what you're doing, but you don’t exactly have a path. You’re just sort of collecting things, almost like Frederick Wiseman. Grabbing, grabbing, grabbing, grabbing. And then once you've watched everything—

SERRA: Let’s say: Two months, three months, to watch. Normally, it should be less than three months. With the notes I take, I don’t know what we have to do but I know what I like. I know the images I like. I know the moments. So we have to create something that takes only these images, not using anything else I don’t like. It is a challenge, creative and scientific at the same time. Creative because it’s the way to find something with such heterogeneous material. Even more heterogenous, since I choose what’s good for completely different kinds of reasons. It’s creative because you have to find it, but also scientific because you have to find the best film. There is only one best scene, one way to shoot that scene. That is the only way. The best one. So the film itself is the same for me. There cannot be two best films; there will be one that is better. I don’t have any doubt that things couldn’t have been done differently. I am totally convinced that I will go to the grave thinking that not even the best editor in the world could collect all the good rushes from my films and do something better. Because from the first selection, my choice of good moments and images is so arbitrary and so personal—for decadent reasons and crazy reasons—that you cannot copy it. You cannot improve it. It comes from a private place. It comes from deep. It is impossible that an external editor can have a look through these images and make it better. It is impossible. Zero chance. I don't know—it’s fate, it’s destiny. It’s certainly not well paid for the effort. You do work a lot of months and you will not receive the same amount of money that people in the shoot, multiplied by the many more days, months, or hours you put in there, get. No, it doesn’t work like this. When I finished every edit on every film, me and the editors all said, “We'll never come back and make a film like this. Never. This is it.” But then again OK, you forget a little bit, after one year, two years and shit—it’s the only way to make it great. You know you have to pass through this pain. Maybe it’s a Christian thing. Pleasure comes from pain. Maybe pain comes from pleasure too—the guilty side of things. It’s a moral thing. It looks like a universal law. If you suffer creating art, the intellectual reward is bigger than if you didn’t suffer so much. And also, the more pleasure you have, the more guilt, the more guilty you feel—maybe it was too much and you should have done something different, something else.

NOTEBOOK: There's a scene where Benoît and the Polynesians sit around the table, eating, and he's bullshitting them. He says that, you know, we'll invite you for Bastille Day to the casino, and so on, and they are happy, under his spell. And then this perfectly sets up the meeting later where he goes and meets the same guys. They push him a little bit and then he threatens them in a very ugly way. This I suppose is must just be the product of your almost documentary-like collection of 540 hours. But it’s a very narrative resonance.

SERRA: As we said before, it’s Wiseman: grab, grab, grab. It’s my attitude. But I have a stock of ideas, a stock of images, a stock of dialogues in my mind that I am randomly or constantly using, even repeating them. We’ll use this dialogue here. Maybe two days later, we’ll try similar dialogue with variations. Never the exact same thing. But with variations, bigger or smaller variations in another part of the shoot. Repeating it on another day. It’s not that you are actively pushing some ideas, some themes, or whatever with this stock of ideas and motifs. No. But at the same time you are reaping the results of their effect. You put one dialogue into a context and it develops in a totally different way. I think it is this stock of ideas and these imprints that I impose on reality that makes it different. Because it’s quite a deliberate imprint. It’s not exactly that full Wiseman objective of grabbing documentary footage while maybe also being observative, careful, blah blah blah. Here it’s manipulation; my stock of ideas is already well chosen and curated. To make the actors more vulnerable, to have some fun, to create new chaos. That will surprise me with something. It’s in the middle. It’s not cinema in the sense that you are constructing something you think of in advance. Because really it is just a stock of ideas, a random stock, just pure stock ideas, words, images, and dialogues, but then you randomly distribute it and repeat it and repeat it. Then you forget and repeat it again. But the methodology of grabbing it afterwards, it’s very, very documentary. I totally agree. It’s the best methodology. The camera captures things that the human eye cannot see in real time. The cameras are there to do their job. It’s useless to pretend that you can project something in front of the camera and the camera will capture it as you imagine it. If does work like that, that is simply the proof that it is a cliché. Maybe the camera will grab some things that human eyes cannot see. Maybe then these things, through editing, can be made visible to human eyes. If it was not visible to humans during the shoot, then it means that it’s something very precious and subtle and interesting.  So it’s my approach. Intervention upon intervention, with fiction or documentary.

NOTEBOOK: I'm curious to ask about the nuclear tests that are a subtle background to Pacifiction. And if you read about the film, generally, the things that people tend to pick up on—write about, talk about—is this sort of neo-colonialism, the nuclear tests potentially returning, that history, and so on. But what this doesn’t do justice to is the sense that when you watch the film, all these sensations come at you subtly. Almost kind of a paranoia. The themes, ideas—they come out of the images. Almost like a disease that you catch when you’re watching the film. It’s not so much of an intellectual idea. It’s simply lurking there.

SERRA: It is as you say because it’s not developed through the drama or through the script. How can you get inside and show the inside of a person. Not a paranoia of a person with an objective, documentary approach. Not that you see the guy and then you see what’s happening around him, but instead that you understand, you feel, that he has paranoia about it all. It’s not so easy to go deep inside him while keeping inside a naturalistic frame. Sometimes we had a little bit of manipulation—a strange sound, making the soundtrack weird or eerie. Sometimes these things are quite obvious and visible. But besides that, how can you make the paranoia come from the image? And I mean only from the image. The drama doesn’t help, on the contrary. You see in the film that there is no narrative evolution to this paranoia, no events that push it further or pull it back. You can see it simply brewing in him. He goes back and forth. The submarines are maybe there. Were the submarines there during the 30 years where there was supposedly none? We are rational—of course they were there. But we see nothing. There is an admiral in the discotheque where Magimel’s character spends so much time. An admiral is responsible for a fleet of submarines. What is he doing there if the submarines are not? But the images themselves create this sense of paranoia, this broken logic. You forget all the logic on the level of plot. You don’t think about it anymore. The film is very subtle on this level, with a lot of humoristic touches. The film is full of these tiny behavioral details. The methodology—the three cameras, the editing—precisely allows me to put many of these details under a microscope. I like this idea, to make these details difficult to spot or meditate on, but still possible. In real time, maybe you can lose some of these nice things that fill the film, but if you pay attention, you can really discover a lot. Gestures, details. As a spectator, of course, you’re watching the film unfold in real time. I believe that with the cinema of the future, people will have to be very concentrated. In this case, I don’t know what makes the richness of a given scene, that it’s never perfect. It’s on the edge of failing. Each moment is on the edge of everything simply collapsing. Like an opera. You believe in everything and you don’t believe in anything. But you cannot be in the middle.

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