New York Film Festival 2022:
Heart of Darkness
An Interview with Albert Serra
By Leonardo Goi
The tragic heroes populating Albert Serra’s films are always out of sync with their times. Drifters watching as the world around them crumbles, they are unable to either roll back or adjust to the changes. Serra’s cinema matches revolutions with catatonia: Don Quixote (Honor de Cavalleria, 2006), Casanova (Story of My Death, 2013), the “Sun King” (The Death of Louis XIV, 2016), and the horny aristocrats of Liberté (2019) are all confined to a similar impasse before the seismic transformations they witness. So it is for the man at the heart of the Catalan filmmaker’s latest, Pacifiction, a tropical reverie that unspools as a cross between Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and Peter Bogdanovich’s Saint Jack (1979). Clad in a double-breasted white suit like a French Fitzcarraldo, Benoît Magimel is Monsieur De Roller, High Commissioner to French Polynesia, a faraway paradise he’s presided over for years, and which is now disintegrating under his watch. Drawing from a horrific chapter in the islands’ history, Serra conjures a vast conspiracy involving atomic bombs and French authorities: during the 1960s, nuclear weapons were regularly detonated onto their overseas territory, leaving 90 percent of all Polynesians exposed to radioactive fallout.
As played by Magimel, De Roller is a duplicitous patrician who seems less perturbed by the idea that France may nuke Polynesia than that the powers that be kept the plans secret from him. What starts as a wild rumor soon swells into a specter haunting the High Commissioner as he hobnobs with local activists and shady expats, searching for an enemy that remains largely invisible. The nuclear threat gives Pacifiction a semblance of structure that Serra’s previous features arguably lacked. This is the director’s most narratively driven film to date, but the story, such as it is, is still labyrinthine, sprawling, and sinuous, more a mosaic of scenes than a three-act plot.
Like the libertines spying on each other through the woods of 18th-century France, De Roller saunters into Tahiti as a voyeur; much of Pacifiction features him watching, peeping, and searching. Cinematographer Artur Tort’s saturated palette—coupled with the undulating synths by composers Marc Verdaguer and Joe Robinson—amplify the film’s increasingly oneiric and sinister aura. Pacifiction teems with all kinds of singular, otherworldly images: sailors swaying in neon-lit discos, a cockfight reenacted by a cast of Polynesian performers, nuclear submarines surfacing on the horizon like prehistoric monsters. But the most spellbinding moment takes place at sea, when Serra follows De Roller as he joins surfers and boats riding waves that look as tall as 20 meters.
Pacifiction screens at the New York Film Festival on October 5; this summer, I met with Serra at Yerevan’s Golden Apricot Film Festival, where we spoke at length about his latest, and went over some of the most significant shots and scenes. “I want to avoid clichés at all costs,” Serra remarked, and Pacifiction is a testament to that restless quest. Like the rest of the director’s oeuvre, the film hails from its own galaxy, an oddity unlike anything else out there, in turns languorous and electrifying.
Reverse Shot: Polynesia, nuclear weapons, secret agents… Pacifiction feels so different from your previous films; I was curious to hear where and how this started.
Albert Serra: Well, for one thing, there were practical and financial reasons as to why we ended up down there. We knew that funding would have been a lot easier if we shot in France, but I didn’t want to film in the country itself—I’d done it a few times already and thought it’d be boring, too bourgeois. So I went, “Let’s go to the ex-colonies,” the départements d’outremer, as the French call them. I’d been reading the autobiography of Tarita Teriipaia, Marlon Brando’s wife, a Polynesian woman. And I liked the idea of exploring a rotten paradise, the fact that this postcard-friendly, Eden-like place had another, darker side. I knew I wanted to follow a high-level politician, and set the story in the present, since all my previous features were period films.
Then I did what I usually do once I’m ready to start writing: I picked a city far away from where I live and booked myself a room in an expensive hotel. Not because I need the comforts—I couldn’t care less about that. It’s just that when I know I’m going to have to pay a lot to stay in a certain place then I have more pressure to wrap things up as soon as possible. So I chose Dublin, hopped on a Ryanair and booked a fancy hotel in the city center. I’m usually very fast; I spent eight or nine nights in total, writing non-stop. I would only eat once a day, would never speak with anyone.
RS: I know you have a very loose approach to writing. You don’t like to plan a lot, and often begin shooting without having a clear idea as to how the project will shape up. And yet Pacifiction is your most narratively driven film to date, which made me wonder if your writing changed as you worked on this script.
AS: Not at all. Writing, for me, has two sides. There’s the creative aspect, the sheer joy of doing it and all the challenges that come with it. And then there’s the financial aspect. What you write needs to help you attract money. Funding. Whether or not you’ll end up following the script is beside the point. In my case, I never really use it once we start shooting.
RS: What happened to the script after you finished the draft?
AS: We still used it for production. People needed it to set up scenes, and scenes require physical places, so we’d use it to think of locations, too. We’ll need a disco, a bar, we’ll shoot at night, in the day, on the boat, on the island… So it still helps you prepare a lot. But I never decide who will get to play in this or that scene. Because I always want all the actors ready for the whole shooting; I want them ready every day. And I usually end up deciding in the morning who will play when, and what. Though it doesn’t always work that way. In Pacifiction we could do it because getting the makeup and costumes ready would take very little time. But in films like Liberté or The Death of Louis XIV, where we were using wigs, more complex makeup, and outfits—it was a lot more tense. There was a lot of pressure on me; people wanted me to plan ahead and decide the schedule a day before… But yeah, I’d usually make up my mind in the morning. I have a stock of ideas for dialogues in mind; some of them might be taken from the script, others come to me during the shooting. I carry a notebook and often write them down there, but that’s about it. I never have a physical copy of the script on me.
RS: What did Benoît Magimel read before he accepted the role then? What did he know about Monsieur de Roller?
AS: Nothing, I think. I think that he was persuaded by the distributor company. And they loved the script. He arrived in Polynesia earlier than planned because, as far as I understood, he wanted to have a two-week holiday with his daughter. We did meet up though, over his break. I walked to his room and saw he had the script open; but when we started chatting I realized he’d only skimmed it. He hadn’t read the whole thing. Which worked really well for my methodology, anyway. With Jean-Pierre Léaud, in The Death of Louis XIV, it was the opposite. I caught him reading the script one day and I was like, “Jean-Pierre, what are you doing? We don’t use the fucking script!” So I threw it away. And when we started to shoot, it was not chronologically. He got lost, didn’t understand where we were. I deliberately changed a lot of things, and got him to improvise, too, just so that we could destroy any chance for him to establish something solid, which might have given way to clichés. That’s the main idea behind this destructive methodology: you want to prevent clichés from sneaking in. Which means you have to destroy, destroy, destroy.
RS: I was hoping we could chat about the scene where De Roller sails off to watch as surfers and boats ride those enormous waves. It’s such a breathtaking sequence. How did you shoot it?
AS: Well, we knew there’d be waves because down in Polynesia they can predict them ten days in advance—that’s how long it takes for them to travel from the U.S. west coast. And we also knew there’d be a surfing championship, which was eventually canceled once lockdown kicked in. But of course, people went out all the same. Everyone was renting boats just to see the waves, make the most of them, surfers and fans. The police could only do so much to stop people; we sailed out in the early morning, and once you were at sea no one would drag you back. We’d been told there’d be waves, but waves this big…
RS: Was it difficult to convince Magimel to head into them?
AS: Not at all. He was onboard with the whole thing. All I did was ask him, “Want to hop on a jet-ski?” And he went, “Why not? Let’s see them up close.” What was really difficult was following him as he ventured out to ride them. But we got lucky. If you look carefully, no boat disrupts the shot: he heads into the waves, and there’s nothing between him and the camera.
RS: I know you always rely on a three-camera set-up. Was it the case for this scene, too?
AS: Of course. Three cameras on the same boat. We lost a card that day, the one and only time that happened, luckily. The guy who was handling the cameras thought he’d given this one card to somebody else so he could swap it with another, but he ended up putting the same card in. Which means he erased all that we shot on it. I have no idea what we lost.
RS: I’d love to hear more about that set-up. I heard you don’t watch anything through your viewfinder and give your camera operators plenty of freedom.
AS: I like to think of the camera as something that helps me capture things I wouldn’t normally see. So when I see filmmakers watching their own images on the combo in real time, as they shoot, I can’t help but think of it as a tautology. Because they are assimilating the potentiality of the human eye. Our eyes can do wonderful things on their own; conversely, the camera can do things our eyes alone wouldn’t be able to. So when you align your eyes with the camera, when you look at the same thing, you end up annihilating the potential of these two tools, which work wonders separately, but very poorly together, as you see in conventional cinema. Now, as for the three cameras, not only do they help you capture more things—they also increase the vulnerability of the actors. And that’s why I like the setup so much. It helps you create an energy that’s vertical, not horizontal. If you only have one camera, your actors will almost naturally want to give something to it, to deliver. If you add more, then you’ll make it more difficult for them to exercise control over their body, and you will replace that horizontal energy for something much more unpredictable, original.
RS: I heard you relied on earpieces, too.
AS: Not all the time. But it was a very good strategy here, especially when shooting first takes. I’d have Magimel wear it, and I’d tell him to just listen to the lines we’d give him and repeat them. Remember the guy had barely read the script, okay, so he had no clue as to what would happen in the scenes he was in, what he was supposed to be doing there, why he was there in the first place. All he did was just listen and repeat. And he did it so well. He was fast and improved the lines a little as he went on, tweaking some words. He was essentially setting up the whole situation in real time, just listening to the dialogues and reacting to them, without any other information. You know the scene where [De Roller] gives that speech, in the restaurant?
There. So, he’s making a toast and praising the work of this French novelist who’s also stranded in Polynesia… And he’s wearing an earpiece. All through the speech.
RS: Were you the one feeding him lines?
AS: No. My accent in French is a little… well, it’s not perfect, and it could have caused us problems. But here, I remember giving Magimel a very rough idea of what the scene was going to be like—“Look, it’s a speech, and you want to be nice to her”—and then I sat next to the guy who fed him his lines. We began rolling, the guy started reading out the lines, and then, suddenly, I turned to him and… [puts a finger to his lips]. The guy went quiet. And Magimel suddenly realized he was on his own. He had to come up with something to say. You notice how he hesitates, how he pauses, as if he was lost in thought? He came up with things we hadn’t scripted, and whenever he seemed truly lost then we’d help him a little bit, only to stop again, all of a sudden… Which gives the whole speech a more organic quality. You know, sometimes your ideas come to you all at once, other times you struggle for words. And yet here you can’t quite figure out what’s going on… all you see is someone who’s genuinely struggling with a speech and improvising it as he goes along. But to achieve this effect… it’s very, very difficult to fake it without falling into clichés. You feel it when it’s fake. But here you don’t, of course, because Benoît was genuinely solving problems in real time. This is what the earpiece was great for. The moment we stopped helping him, that’s when he would be at his most vulnerable. You get used to the thing, and when you can’t rely on it anymore, that’s when you have to start thinking. I knew a lot of these tricks from previous projects, and I’ve always been very intuitive with actors. My goal is to create things that feel both artificial and organic, things that are very uncommon and never dip into clichés.
RS: I would have never guessed he was wearing an earpiece. He makes the whole speech feel so seamless! Even as he falters, hesitates… it’s just so authentic.
AS: He’s very gifted. We did arrive at something similar with Jean-Pierre Léaud in The Death of Louis XIV too, though he’s really not gifted.
RS: Wait, what do you mean?
AS: I just don’t think he’s a gifted actor in general. See, with Magimel, I could tell him where I wanted to go with a certain scene, give him some kind of direction, and he would get quite close to it. With Jean-Pierre, I could ask him the same, but he’d take so much longer to get there. He’d try many different things until in the end, almost by chance, we’d get to where I wanted. With Magimel, he just goes straight to where you want him to go. Not that I know what I am looking for, ever. With Jean-Pierre, it’s a matter of patience. You just know you’ll have to take more time. But what you end up with in the end is also very strange, it’s again this combination of organic and artificial all at once. The result is the same, okay, but the way to achieve it and the time you need to achieve it, that’s very different.
RS: Speaking of your way of working with actors, you famously don’t do rehearsals.
AS: I have never done a rehearsal in my life, and I will die before I do. I just think they’re superfluous. If your camera has such a high sensibility to the smallest details already—if it can, effectively, capture things that are invisible to the human eye—then what’s the point preparing or rehearsing anything beforehand?
RS: One of the film’s most indelible shots only lasts a heartbeat. We’re inside a disco, early into Pacifiction, and De Roller is busy flaunting his connections and power over the islands with some shady patrons. He smirks, “I’m very involved.” And right as he says this he looks straight into the camera, for a split second. Here:
RS: I wanted to bring this up because to me this is the kind of moment that truly crystallizes De Roller’s ambiguity, his ability to straddle seduction and fear, to come across as irresistibly charming and manipulative in the same shot. Whose idea was it, this fourth wall rupture?
AS: Mine. But yes, he executes it perfectly. Just look: he glances at you for one split second… and then looks away. You barely have time to realize that he’s playing with you, and then it’s over. But it works. Half a second longer, two or three frames more, it wouldn’t work anymore. But this fucking guy … he nails it! That’s why he’s so gifted. Had we done this with Jean-Pierre Léaud it would have taken us the whole morning just to get a couple of glances. But Magimel… just look at him. He’s so sly. So seductive. So devilish. And when he stares at you, he does it so quickly you’re never quite sure of what you just saw. Was he really looking at you? And he does this several times, three or four times over a scene that spans less than two minutes. It’s incredible. You fall into his trap, each and every time.
RS: The whole film feels like one. I remember watching Pacifiction and feeling as if I was stepping into a labyrinth. Especially toward the end, and the story becomes more surreal, the frames more caliginous.
AS: Exactly. And the darker the film gets, the crazier everything becomes, until you enter this tunnel of paranoia, a train traveling through reality. I’m really interested in this logic of the night, which is a very unproductive, infertile logic, if you think about it. Night tends to consume itself, to lock you into this world that’s full of strange images, which blur the line between what is real and what isn’t. An admiral dancing alone in a neon-lit disco, for example. Secret agents lurking in the shadows. I like nighttime because it speaks to my idea of cinema as one big distortion, an escape from reality that makes you believe in the impossible.
RS: That distortion is also very much a function of the score. Here too you worked with longtime collaborators Marc Verdaguer and Joe Robinson, and I wondered how you three went about working on the soundtrack. When do you usually talk to your composers? And how involved are you in the process?
AS: I only talk to them after the shoot, halfway through the edit, when I get a sense of whether I want music or not, what kind and where. Here it was a little bit random. They sent me lots of stuff, and I sent them a few ideas of my own. But mostly it was the sound design guy who started to manipulate things a little bit. Where I do intervene is always on questions of taste, on choices regarding the overall feel of the score. But in Pacifiction… I guess I wasn’t as involved here. Not to the same degree, perhaps. I still got to make my choices, sure, but it was more a question of figuring out which moments needed music, which ones needed more or less of it. And I think music is essential to the film. It was probably never as essential in my previous work, never as important, to create the atmosphere. I mean, the last 40 minutes here, when things get strange… it’s music that creates this sense of paranoia.
RS: Still, there’s plenty of humor. Late in the film, De Roller sits in his car and delivers this Colonel Kurtz–like monologue about nuclear annihilation while his sidekick keeps dozing off next to him. People get hung up on the formalism of your films, but it’s scenes like this that remind me of how just funny they are, too.
AS: Look, I decided to become a filmmaker to have fun. And humor, to me, is essential. The problem with it is that it’s really tricky to get it right. I like humor, and I think Pacifiction has lots of it. I also think it’s a result of the atmosphere you create outside the frame, of what happens on set. The ambience there is always quite playful. And that’s something I really like, you know, it's all chaotic and tense, but still funny. And I think this energy ends up contaminating the films themselves. The problem is when the humor is too obvious. That’s when it gets risky, because it can become vulgar. It's already very difficult to believe in the film as it is, so you don’t need another layer of, you know, humorous stuff… It may be too much. You probably already sense that the film is laughing at you, playing with you, as a spectator. That’s why I always try to hide it as much as possible, while editing. The humor’s there. I like it when it works. And I always end up with plenty of funny scenes I cut. There was this one scene here we ended up not using, which I kind of regret: we had Madame Attia, the novelist, seduce the young local leader, Matahi. It was really funny, but it didn’t make the cut. I was worried it may kill the credibility of Matahi’s character, you see, make him look less strong.
RS: I wanted to ask about your relationship with paintings, and how those might have influenced Pacifiction. I know that Gaugin is an obvious reference when one thinks of Polynesia, but of all things, Pacifiction made me think of Edvard Munch and the apocalyptic skies of his The Scream. For a story that, among many other things, is also about an impending nuclear catastrophe, the skies you capture evoke something cataclysmic.
AS: That’s interesting, I hadn’t thought of Munch. And trust me, we had so many shots of skies we ended up not using. But as for my pictorial references… I don’t know. I don’t know if I consciously apply them as I shoot. You see, the thing is, this is all composed very fast. We have three cameras, one will do one thing, the others something else. It’s not so calculated. So much of the credit in the end goes to the camera operators. But it’s true that my sensibility has been shaped by my love for the masters of landscapes, from Constable to Bruegel… It’s just something I assimilated a long while back, and I guess it subconsciously manifests itself in some of these compositions.
RS: This one has to be one of my favorites:
AS: Oh, yes, this one I like very much. Notice how it’s closed from both left and right, shielded by trees on both sides, but open in the middle. It’s one of my favorite compositions; you’ll see it in all my films. It’s in Liberté, in Story of My Death… Even in The Death of Louis XIV, I believe there’s a scene with a similar setup, where Léaud looks outside his bedroom window. Not sure if it’s exactly the same, but you’ll find one or two compositions like this in all my films.
RS: On that note, I wanted to ask about the film’s locations. Some of them have a postcard look, yet you always manage to complicate that, and shroud the settings in this dreamlike haze. What criteria did you have in mind when you started thinking of your locations?
AS: I wanted them to be decorative, you know, to look exotic. Because I knew that the way we would shoot them—the cameras we were going to use, the optics we would choose—that would help them have an organic feel. So that postcard look, I wasn’t too concerned about it. In fact, I wanted to underline that aspect. Because the idea was to reproduce that same, let’s call it, trashy look, indoors as well. The bar. The disco… And I was delighted when we found Shannah’s house, which we probably didn’t exploit as much. The porch, outside—it’s just stunning. Or the derelict hotel [pictured at top]… Or the church, early on…
AS: They’re incredible, aren’t they? I always scout for locations myself. I think that’s the director’s job—to look, choose, and familiarize himself with them. It just takes time, and it can be a bit boring. But it has to be done. Plus, I never really trust what people show me. Of course, you go take a look at what they found, but… people hardly ever understand what kind of film I’m preparing! [laughs] But we got lucky here. We spent about two or three weeks looking around, but the spots we settled for, I think they work. They show the country. And it’s an artificial country, you know? Places like these, I mean, they’re almost fake. Surreal.
RS: And they’re hypnotic, too. There’s an interesting parallel to be made between your locations and the narrative itself. As if the looped, labyrinthine feeling you get from the film was also a function of the places you show.
AS: And that’s what I mean when I say that it’s always a matter of variations, for me. The whole film is made of variations of the same idea, the same motif, the same words, the same dialogue. You go around and come back, all the time. But it still feels light, for all the wandering. It is more romanesque than my previous films. This was one of the things I really wanted Pacifiction to have: the lightness of a narrative. You go from here to there, little by little, you move from one place to the next. Sort of like Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Or Stendhal. These petites péripéties, these small meanderings that keep you hooked. You want to follow De Roller. You want to be with him, want to know what he’s up to, why he goes to these places, where he’ll travel next. You want to know!
RS: How much did you shoot, in total?
AS: Oh, we ended up with 540 hours of material. And as we wrapped everything we had someone send the recordings of the dialogues to Paris, so that they could be transcribed. We ended up with a PDF of 1,276 pages. Two bundles this big. Without it, we would have never been able to edit the film. Take the fourth wall rupture, when De Roller looks at us: that whole take probably lasted 45 or 50 minutes, meaning 30 or 40 pages of dialogues. And you need the transcription to orient yourself, remember what was said, etc. Then obviously I have my own notes. I write down the time codes for all the bits I like, so we can match the dialogues with the images I choose, to find a way to harmonize everything. It’s a super complex process, and it took us eight months here. Three editors, working seven days a week. We only stopped for eight days over Christmas, in Barcelona. And then resumed working in Marseille. I still don’t know anything about Marseille. All I saw was the studio, the restaurant, and the supermarket next door.
RS: I wanted to close with this shot, where De Roller is scanning the horizon for nuclear submarines, armed with his James Bond binoculars.
RS: It made me think of how tragic the act of looking often is in your films. Your heroes are all caught in the middle of seismic changes they don’t know how to respond to. The world they used to know is crumbling, and all they can do is keep on watching.
AS: And I like the idea of a world crumbling. I think it’s more graphic, more visually appealing than a more bourgeois scenario in which nothing ever changes. We’ve been there, we’ve seen that. And I’ve been following similar destructions in previous films, too. Casanova, who doesn’t recognize his own society anymore, in Story of My Death. Louis XIV, who watches in his bed as France changes. The people in Liberté, who were banned by the court of Louis XV. There’s definitely a continuity here. But maybe… [pauses] Maybe this leitmotif has gotten progressively darker with each film. And that’s because the kind of power and hierarchies the films deal with have become darker, too. We’re talking atomic bombs here. This is a film about a character who’s stuck in the middle of nowhere, haunted by people who are so high up he can’t even see them. I just didn’t think the nuclear threat would feel so timely.