France conducted its first nuclear test on 13 February 1960, in doing so becoming the world’s fourth nuclear power. The initial detonation was already four times as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. They named the project Gerboise Bleue, after the small rodents who hop around the desert where the tests took place near the Reggane Oasis in Algeria – Gerboise Blanche and Gerboise Rouge would soon complete the tricolore. The French army maintained that they were carried out as safely as possible, though it used human participants in lieu of lab rats: soldiers were made to lie in the sand and then walk towards the explosion’s epicentre less than an hour after detonation (a poll found that 35% developed cancer and 20% became infertile). Anticipating that Algeria may soon gain independence – in the event, tests continued there in secret thanks to the Évian Accords – in 1963 France expanded its nuclear testing to French Polynesia, where de Gaulle established the Centre d’expérimentation du Pacifique. By 1996, when operations came to an end, it had conducted a total of 45 atmospheric and 134 underground detonations, many at a small atoll named Moruroa – a Tahitian word meaning ‘big lies’.
The maverick Catalan director Albert Serra has chosen a portmanteau title with similar connotations for his latest film. According to a recent interview, Pacifiction is intended to simply mean ‘a fiction of the Pacific’, something ‘exotic, artificial and unbelievable’, which might be one way to describe the colonial project in French Polynesia. The islands remain an ‘overseas country’ – France can assume direct control at any time – which is governed by a tripartite of rulers: the French President, a French Polynesian President and a High Commissioner who functions as an emissary of the French state. In Pacifiction, the High Commissioner is a man named De Roller (Benoît Magimel). He dresses in a double-breasted linen suit and blue-tinted shades; he often pouts and flaps his hands in a Trump-like way. Serra has described the character as ‘affable’, a ‘populist’ and a ‘psychopath’.
The big lies at work in Serra’s film also concern nuclear testing. Marines have begun appearing on the island of Tahiti, as have suspicious foreigners with diplomatic passports. We meet two Americans who are likely CIA, and a Portuguese spy with British underlings. De Roller can’t make head or tail of their presence. Rumours abound that nuclear testing is set to resume, but he hasn’t heard anything official. He spends the film telling people not to worry, all the while becoming increasingly worried himself. Every character in Pacifiction appears to be against nuclear testing except for a French Admiral (Marc Susini), also recently arrived on the island, who may well be insane. He tends to look straight through his interlocutors as if drunk or deranged; asked how sailors don’t go mad being at sea for so long, he replies ‘I often wonder that myself’. Speaking to Matahi (Matahi Pambrun), a local representative covered in tattoos both traditional and contemporary, the Admiral justifies nuclear testing as follows: ‘When they see what we’re willing to do to our own people – yes, our own – will they still be able to doubt how our enemies are treated?’ (‘My friend,’ Matahi replies, ‘do you have enemies?’)
The invocation of those to be sacrificed as ‘our own’ has historical precedent. French Polynesians have opposed nuclear testing in their homeland for decades – most forcefully in 1995, when Chirac ended Mitterand’s moratorium on the practice. Tens of thousands took to the street in protest, manning a blockade in the capital Papeete that lasted several days. Journalists from around the world descended on Tahiti to cover the event, as did Greenpeace’s anti-nuclear ship, the Rainbow Warrior II. (French agents had blown up the first Rainbow Warrior in 1985, killing one crew member in the process. Growing up in New Zealand, where it was sunk, I would often visit its memorial at Matauri Bay.) Despite the rallying together of these anti-nuclear powers, France was undeterred. In interviews after testing had resumed, the centre’s director Admiral Jean Lichère explained plainly that they had been given orders and followed them, that there would be no significant impact on the environment, and that the test had occurred so far below water that it didn’t even make a sound. When asked why it wasn’t carried out on French soil, he replied: ‘But this is France!’
It is about midway through Pacifiction that Matahi attempts to strongarm De Roller, telling the High Commissioner that ‘we’re not going back to ’95’. In this sequence, as on other occasions in the film, it is not easy to discern who holds power over whom and in whose interests they are acting. Matahi may be operating as a puppet of the Americans, who may be coordinating the local protests to curb France’s military power. De Roller meanwhile represents the French, but he is more immediately concerned with his own well-being – which, ironically, depends upon the approval of the locals. Rather than an instrument of colonial power, Matahi insists that De Roller should be acting as a shield: ‘We’re asking you to act how we want. Prophylactically.’
Colonialism has often been conceived as a kind of rape and here the symbolism is plain: the nuclear bomb as phallic, masculine, violent, while French Polynesians have historically regarded their islands as feminine, nourishing, womb-like. Tahiti’s colonial history is one of being cast as a fertile fantasyland, beginning with its ‘discovery’ in 1768, when French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville named it after the birthplace of Aphrodite (the story of the mutiny on the HMS Bounty didn’t help matters, nor did Marlon Brando’s starring role in 1962’s Mutiny on the Bounty). When Captain Cook arrived in Tahiti a year later, he brought with him several artists who inaugurated the exoticized depiction of the island’s women, which persisted through the work of Gauguin to contemporary advertisements for tourists. Serra takes up this figure only to subvert it. Male and female servers saunter scantily around the film’s nightclub – called Paradise Night – but any lustre is gone. One scene shows a topless woman dancing as she DJs a never-ending house track. The aural dullness mirrors the bathetic lack of visual spectacle: nudity ad tedium.
Dennis Lim has written for Film Comment that Serra’s films ‘bring the mythic past to life through a rejection of spectacle, by distilling events to the sparest of anecdotes and imbuing figures with the mundane weight of existence’. Serra’s Don Quixote stumbles about in the fog (Honour of the Knights, 2006); his Louis XIV simply rots away in bed (The Death of Louis XIV, 2016). Even when he relies on spectacle, as in the orgies of his previous film, Liberté (2019) – 132 minutes of flesh, piss and wank – a certain dullness sets in. In the case of Pacificition, however, bringing that mythic past to life becomes a more complex endeavour for the fact that the history of Tahiti is riven in two: before and after foreign invasion. But Serra seems less concerned with what Tahiti once was, focusing instead on what it has become, forgoing the island’s local mythology in favour of the perverted Western spectacle imposed upon it. The very first shot of Pacifiction makes this clear: a beautiful pink sky and purple mountain range in the background (in local myth, the terrestrial body of the Tahitian gods), and then in the foreground, shipping containers. It’s one of many images that Serra allows to speak for itself, yet which lays bare the pacific fictions of the colonial imagination. Much of the film is shot through with a similar beauty, yet the use of bilateral blur makes the colours fray at the edges of the frame, undermining the authenticity of such sublime visions. Occasionally, Serra also employs a circular, lens-like effect – the result is a little like watching through the periscope of a nuclear submarine.
Are these images warped by the idealizations of the island fantasy, or merely nuclear fallout? It remains illegal to visit Morurua, which continues to be guarded by the French military and remains absent from some maps. What big lies wait in slumber? While the French government maintains that the tests had no impact, local stories tell otherwise – secret bans on fishing and harvesting, swift deaths from the consumption of fish and coconuts. As the anthropologist Miriam Kahn recounts, in spite of efforts to suppress the health statistics, it was revealed that within a decade of the tests starting, typically radiation-induced diseases such as leukaemia, thyroid cancers and brain tumours began to appear at alarming rates. Early in the film, De Roller recounts that ‘the most terrible thing’ he ever heard was the view that even if nuclear testing was causing illnesses, cancers, birth defects, and other malformations, ‘the nuclear program also afforded us the money to treat them’.
Just as Pacifiction begins with a potent image of empire – the land and the ships that sullied it – it also ends with one. The Admiral leads a group of young soldiers out to sea one morning, instructing them to leave all earthly possessions behind. Perhaps sensing their disquiet, he launches into an impassioned speech – one invoking sacrifice, heroism and the greater good. ‘One day, perhaps, others will recognize your deeds. And that day, the world will have changed!’ It’s an irony beautifully compounded by Serra’s camerawork. In the frame, from left to right, we see one soldier in blue, the next in white, and then lastly, projected from the ship’s hull, a red light splattered on the ocean. After lingering for a moment, Serra pivots rightward, leaving only red – an intimation of the horrors that lie beneath the sea.
Read on: Ian Birchall, ‘Capital of Pariahs’, NLR 98.