HIFF Notes #4 — Movies to watch at the Film Festival

What to see at the Hawaii Int'l Film Festival -- Part 4

High Commissioner De Roller and his confidante, Shannah
High Commissioner De Roller (Benoît Magimel) and his confidante, Shannah (Pahoa Mahagafanau)
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Editor’s note: This is the fourth installment of an ongoing blog on films to see at HIFF–The Hawai’i International Film Festival


I really wanted to see this French-language production, by Catalonian film maker Albert Serra. The main theme, as critic Nicholas Bell wrote, “concerns the cancer of colonialism in a tropical Tahitian paradise.” That sounds about right– at least from the director’s perspective. (I don’t necessarily agree with the premise, but it’s not my film).


Tahiti is a place I’m quite familiar with. However after viewing it, I was not keen on writing a review. The HIFF program called it “deliberately paced”. I call it glacially paced and after 3 hours, perhaps an hour too long, I was running out of patience.

I took a step or two back and realized, I was a bit hasty in my judgement in blowing off a film review.

Perhaps I was in a position to add something to the equation.

As someone who has lived and worked in French Polynesia–I suspect I knew more about the place than most movie critics (outside of Papeete, the capital of French Polynesia).

I’ve written two guidebooks French Polynesia and as a stringer for the San Francisco Chronicle Foreign Service decades ago, covered the French nuclear testing program. This is a consequential theme in the film.

High Commissioner De Roller (Benoît Magimel) at a dance rehearsal.
High Commissioner De Roller (Benoît Magimel) at a dance rehearsal. He likes to hang out in the dressing room with the crew.

So, now that I’ve established my Tahiti bona fides, on with the show…

The film opens with a hazy sunrise over Papeete Harbor. The sky is an apocalyptic orange, as the camera pans the waterfront. There are massive stacks of shipping containers dockside and huge cranes looming over them. In the distance are the towering, silhouetted peaks of Moorea.

This paradise is clearly dependent on the outside world. No free lunch here.

We cut to a zodiac raft with half a dozen French submariners and their commanding officer, an admiral no less, heading to shore. The guys tie up to the dock and we cut to a bar filled with hunky Tahitian waiters, dressed in white briefs, and scantily clad vahines serving drinks. Everyone is bathed in artificial light which makes the waiters’ briefs glow bright white. (For the record, there’s nothing close to a bar like this in Papeete with guys running around their jockey shorts that I’m aware of, but this is Serra’s movie, not mine…)

We soon meet our protagonist, High Commissioner De Roller (played superbly by Benoît Magimel) at his favorite bar, “Paradise Now”, owned by his buddy, Morton (Sergei Lopez). De Roller is clad in a white linen suit that defines his persona—the big white boss in paradise. He’s the very image of the entitled white man but he’s not an egomaniac; he seems to have it under control. He mixes just as adroitly with Tahitians as he does with the expats and the military folk.

He especially enjoys schmoozing with the half-naked dancers, who gather the dressing room.

Cockfights and Dancing Girls

The ruins of the Tahara'a Hotel  perched on One Tree Hill named by Captain Cook
Decadence is a big theme. De Roller seems to gravitate to these places like the ruins of the Tahara’a Hotel perched on One Tree Hill named by Captain Cook just outside of Papeete.

He’s particularly interested in one of their routines, a cock fight reenactment and, after a rehearsal, he inserts himself into the mix suggesting that the mortally wounded rooster, portrayed by a muscular tane, be dispatched by the vahines with alacrity. “It’s beautiful to see such violence, “he says. The dance sequence is juxtaposed with footage of a real cockfight.

The message is clear; there’s tension and perhaps violence beneath the surface of this society. The Tahitians are colonized and have a good reason to be steamed. Evidently the white folks seem have their own rage bottled up inside.

On the surface it would seem the Tahitians have a good deal. Despite the advantages of being part of France (the Tahitian government is highly subsidized) locals are ambivalent about the relationship. They love their Veuve Clicquot and their French fashions, but it comes at a great psychic cost.

They carry French passports but who are they? French? Tahitian? Something in between? This ambiguity is realistic in my experience.

The anger inevitably surfaces when De Roller is warned by a powerful demi (part Tahitian) community activist (Matahi Pambrun) that the locals will raise hell about the alleged nuclear testing program. There’s going to be violence.

Who can blame them? Tahitians were impacted by generations of nuclear fallout from Mururoa (in the nearby Tuamotu Islands) where the bombs were tested, between 1966 and 1974. They are not going to be complacent about this new development.

Trouble in Paradise

A light moment with De Roller
One of the few true intimate moments in the movie. De Roller can be himself.

Panbrum, who in an earlier scene indulges the High Commissioner in a business meeting, does a brilliant job evoking the latent hostility that many Tahitians feel towards the French. He does such a good job one wonders how much he is acting.

The High Commissioner reacts angrily to the threats from Tahitians, but he realizes he’s powerless. He’s just a cog in the machine.

The real power seems to be with the elfin Admiral (Marc Susini) from the sub commander, who in between drunken visits to the nightclub (where he seems particularly interested in the hunky waiters) spouts off diatribes such as, “they will see by the way we treat our own people exactly how we will also treat our enemies”.

It seems all De Roller can do is spy on a dinghy, full of vahines, which clandestinely leaves the shore in the evenings to rendezvous with the submarine. The High Commissioner is convinced the women who visit the submarine are being abused and he wants to know what the hell is going on. He goes on a wild goose chase in a boat to catch them but is left chasing ghosts.

Shot in a smoky sort of film noir milieu, decadence (or “decadencia” as writer/director Albert Serra might say) is always present. Whether De Roller is in the boozy light of his favorite bar, Paradise Now, or the empty, decaying ruins of the Tahara’a Hotel, the moral decay is omnipresent.

De Roller rambles around the dilapidated Tahara'a Hotel.
De Roller rambles around the dilapidated Tahara’a Hotel. A metaphor for French Polynesia? In the background is Moorea.

In one scene De Roller walks into a dark, cavernous bar that’s nearly empty. The DJ is a topless vahine of a certain age (with enhanced features) who looms over the controls, blasting a mindless, throbbing techno beat. It’s sexual but vacuous. Meanwhile at the same establishment, on the outside patio, an obese Tahitian man is seated on a bench seemingly choking a half naked vahine who sits at his feet. No one pays attention to them.

Is this where the latent Polynesian anger gets channeled or is it simply consensual fun? Or both?

As De Roller leaves the place the vahine DJ stands motionless at the door like some aging Aphrodite. He passes her without a look.

Just another evening in paradise.

De Roller appears not to be interested in women anyway. Which brings us to another theme.

Who needs women anyway?

There’s more than just a touch of homoerotism in this film. More often than not, the men are more interested in men than the ubiquitous, sensuous vahines. The traditional, Gauguinesque of Paradise seems to be turned on its head.

There’s also wonderful scene where the Admiral from the sub prances around the Paradise Now dance floor with an assortment of muscular Tahitian waiters and submariners.  “Who’s the new handsome waiter?”, he asks.

De Roller meets with the community organizer at left (Matahi Pambrun) and his angry cohort ready to protest against the resumption of nuclear testing.

De Roller seems to be a fellow traveler in his preferences. His main female interest is a mahu (a transvestite) Shannah (Pahoa Mahagafanau) is the dancers’ choreographer. (She’s a wonderful actress who seems constantly bemused by the goings on. She’s worth the price of admission).

She becomes a trusted advisor and confidante but you don’t see much physical intimacy between them. It’s not clear if they are lovers but they’re definitely tight. She’s around him often—whether it’s a visit to her bungalow or a business lunch on Tetiaroa (a resort that Brando established in the 1970s) to talk turkey with Tahitian politicians.  

Real Tahitians

Shannah is likeable and believable, which brings me to an important point. The Tahitians in this film are portrayed realistically. What you see, for the most part, is what you really get. The locals are natural, their dialogue is believable, and they don’t have to play too hard at acting. In effect, they are not cartoon characters.

So what’s missing in paradise? There are no scenes that depict men and women pleasuring each other unless you count the depraved fat guy choking the vahine. Another thing you don’t see, ever, is the traditional Tahitian greeting–a peck on each cheek. Everybody does this in Tahiti but not once in this film do we witness this charming convention.

And what’s with the hazy shooting technique that permeates this film (beginning with the dockside sunrise)?

To quote Albert Serra “Everything is hazy in Pacifiction […] I think that current films tend to be dreadfully explanatory and didactic. I feel as though they’re addressing children who ceaselessly need to have everything explained to them.”

There’s a helluvalot going on in this film but the haziness belies the stark messages. You’ll figure it out.

So how does the movie end? I won’t give it away but think Dr. Strangelove, without the mushroom clouds.


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