In the middle of the 1970s, Sergei Parajanov was killing time. Imprisoned for what the authorities considered subversive activities (he was, amongst other things, bisexual), the filmmaker began carving figures into milk bottle lids with the one tool he had: his fingernails. Much of that collection still survives, housed in a museum in Yerevan that bares his name. And every year or so, wars and pandemics notwithstanding, one or two are picked out, cast in silver, and awarded at the Golden Apricot Film Festival.
One of this year’s recipients, Albert Serra, took the stage at the festival’s opening ceremony to receive his award and delivered a speech as succinct as it was selective—which is to say, some previous honourees were noted and some were not. “I mentioned the ones I really love,” Serra explained to me, sipping coffee in the atrium of the Grand Hotel the next morning, “Ulrich Seidl is a master. Vitaly Minsky, Gianfranco Rossi, you know, Paul Schrader. There were also a lot of famous people, but I don’t respect them. I have my taste. I am free, no? I don’t have to obey.”
Certainly not. Born in Catalonia in 1975, Serra, who began making films in his mid 20s, is one of the most original directors working today—and he knows it. In Cannes earlier this year, his latest, Pacifiction, rolled over the competition with all the ease of the surging breaker of its already famous centerpiece: “It was not very difficult, compared with all the other things there, you know? I’m talking about Cannes, but this includes everything from the platforms, too. It’s all deeply merged. It has transformed peoples’ minds. Most films are like typical TV series now: journalism with images. They find a subject and they apply the same dramatic cheap tricks. It’s conventional cinema in the sense that it’s always politically correct: a queer message, family values, social problems.”
Serra had received acclaim from mainstream critics before––notably with The Death of Louis XIV in 2016, but Pacifiction looked the tougher sell. Was he surprised by its success? “A bit. But maybe it’s because people are waiting for something like this when they go to the cinema. I make the effort, I make it a bit more narrative, so people make the effort, too.” Pacifiction follows High Commissioner De Roller (Benoît Magimel, a vision in white linens and blue tint sunglasses), a slick foreign diplomat in French Polynesia who treats the island like his own personal Eden. As De Roller attempts to get a casino built, we see him schmoozing at the local discotheque, rumors begin to circle that the French military are planning to begin nuclear testing in the region for the first time in 20 years. His kingdom looks set to crumble.
The Film Stage: I remember when we talked in Thessaloniki a few years back, you spoke about how the EU might need an army soon. At the time it was jarring to hear, but now a lot of people would probably agree with you.
Albert Serra: [Laughs] Well, I am a visionary.
I was wondering if that was baked into Pacifiction in some way, even subconsciously, some kind of gut anxiety about a re-militarized Europe?
I don’t know who could have predicted these things, that there would be this tension of war? For me, nothing related to war surprises me. I am a great reader on the Second World War. I have it always in my mind. It’s like coming to Armenia. I was a great reader of the Peloponnese war and it’s symbolic for all the wars that came after. The war here with Azerbaijan, for this territory and the implication of Turkey and Russia, everything is there: all the problems in Europe, the borders of Ukraine and Russia. Everything is in the Peloponnese war. So, nothing about this surprises me. We could face war soon. Who can say, no?
Like in Liberté and Louis XIV, we start to see De Roller’s world fall apart. This feeling, of an era coming to an end, feels central to your cinema. Why do you return to it so often in your work?
It’s the theme of all great works of history, of literature. It’s the beginning or the end of something, it’s all tumbling down. And these crepuscular worlds are aesthetically fascinating. When there is no change, that’s another kind of literature, that’s bourgeois literature, about the problems or relationships between people. But when the world is changing, beginning or ending, it’s more interesting. You see pioneers or you see decadence.
I think decadence is the key word.
Of course, because it’s more visually interesting. It’s rotten, but at the same time, you can make it great: the rotten side of granddad is an aesthetic paradox. You can see it in this film, these beautiful landscapes, and then you see the discotheque, and this politician with his white suit, but when it opens he has a dirty, horrible tattoo. I like this contrast. I say always, the film is about contemporary trash. It’s not glamorous.
It’s like with all the brands. Karl Lagerfeld, Louis Vuitton, you see that everybody is embracing this contemporary trash aesthetic. I think that cinema is doing a little bit the same, but I like this idea. At least with this, you can focus on the aesthetic first and then the social problems.
When you were starting out, who were some of the filmmakers who inspired you most?
I like the attitude of a lot of filmmakers, but it was difficult to influence me in terms of content. I don’t know, Warhol was an inspiration but at the same time not on the content. Never on the content, only people around me, or music and literature. That said, I didn’t choose Don Quixote for Honor of the Knights because I was a great fan of the book. I like it as a book very much, but I did it for different reasons. I chose it because I thought that it would be the most antagonistic thing to do with digital cameras, to mix this subject with this technology.
Were there similar kinds of conceptual ideas behind your aesthetic choices for Pacifiction?
I used the idea that it should be exotic for the same reason that I chose an island, and specifically Polynesia. “Decorative” also has a narrative connotation, it’s not superficial. My point of departure was this: exotic, decorative, and artificial, all at the same time. Then I would put organic things in with the actors, along with their wild behaviour.
Do you mean the cockfights?
Yes, but also the dancers, the tension, the techno music, the fat guy.
Oh, the choking part? That was something.
I like to have this as décor because it creates a nice contrast. It’s like Gerard Depardieu in Conquest of Paradise, you know, there is paradise but there is the other side? I wanted to escape the idea that this was a pure, virginal paradise and that Western people corrupted it. I don’t like this idea, it’s too cliché. It’s true, of course, but when I was there, they like the money as much as anybody. It’s what you see when you see the Native Americans. I don’t know if it’s a cliché or true, but from what we know they are very decadent.
That is spiky.
I don’t know, maybe they destroyed them so much that they will never stand up again. But what I mean is, the only way to avoid cliché in film, especially at the dramatic point, is to have a different idea. So, I went there and I started to see things. I didn’t simply want to say that we are in paradise and that Western people came and did nuclear testing.
First, we don’t know if historically it’s even true. Probably yes, but who cares for a film if it’s true? You saw the Tarantino film about Hollywood, you can say whatever you want in a film. It doesn’t have to answer to anything. If you have to follow the historical truth closely, that’s journalism.
What were the challenges you faced while filming on this island?
I know we were lucky because for half the shoot it was total lockdown, but we were still allowed to shoot, so we had the whole island to ourselves. You go to the beach and you don’t see anybody. You don’t see a car behind you, you don’t see anyone passing. It’s like a ghost island somehow, a ghost city. This helped to increase the paranoia but this was maybe the most challenging thing, to find the right balance, because if there is too much of nothing, it can be like too much décor. But if there is too much realism, it’s vulgar. It’s like a TV series.
This wave sequence is especially astonishing. Could you talk us through it? I know it’s one of these big wave surfing spots. How were you able to get so close?
We went at the hour of the day where they appear bigger, but it was by chance, because there was going to be this world surf championship. Then there was COVID and a lot of people left or didn’t arrive. Some people were training or they’d already traveled there, and there were some locals, but it meant that the number of boats was a lot lower.
We couldn’t have had it better because, during normal years, there would have been three or four times as many boats and we could have never gotten so close. The police were preventing people from going there because it was lockdown but people still went out because it was a unique occasion. So, we were lucky, it looks very realistic.
It looks crazy realistic.
Yes, and at the same time we were able to put our actor on a jet ski and film our dialogues. It goes perfectly realistically, the craziness in the combination of these two elements.
How big was the camera you took out there?
Blackmagic pocket. I always shoot with three cameras, small cameras, and only three camera operators. There is no system of cameras in any of my shoots, because every operator has to have the autonomy to pick up the tripod and everything and be able change angle. And only with zoom lenses, I’ve never used a fixed lens in my life.
It’s really become your signature, this camera set up. What is it about the aesthetic that works so well for you?
The aesthetic gives the possibility of working deeply with the actors because the camera captures things that the human eye cannot. If I look at you for 20 minutes, I’ll be tired. The camera can shoot your face for 20 minutes and in the edit I’ll see if there was some slight movement. I can analyze this really deeply, the complexity of what your face creates during a 20-minute dialogue, but in real-time my eyes cannot see this. It’s impossible. I trust what the camera will do because I know the camera will see things differently from what I see. For this reason, I have never checked a single image of my film before the end of the shoot, never in my life.
And I never do rehearsals with any actors because I really trust that the camera will shoot the maximum of things. If it’s what human eyes can see then you are closer to cliché. If it’s something that we can see, it means that it’s something that we have already seen. It’s the way to get further from cliché, and it’s the setup I love. It breaks a lot of tendencies of working with actors because they usually try to communicate with the camera, but if there are three, they can’t, and the vulnerability and the innocence in their performances are amplified.
How did Benoît respond to it?
Perfectly. All the actors like it. They are so bored of always doing the same thing. It’s not easy, especially at the beginning, but they get used to it and I think that by the end, everybody takes great pleasure from this methodology. Then it’s my problem to make it more tense, to keep it alive, because if they get used to it they can fall into cliché again.
How did you find these nonprofessional actors? Pahoa Mahagafanau has an especially strong presence.
It’s my talent a little bit, I’m a folkish person. I was in Locarno once and Bruce LaBruce was there. It was maybe ten years ago, with Gerontofilia. It was 4 p.m. or 6 p.m. and they were looking for him because he had interviews and so on. When we found him he was already in this super crazy bar. I’ve been at Locarno for like 15 years and I never even knew that this bar existed! It was like, Jesus, super strange and trash.
There’s not a lot of that in Locarno.
[Laughs] There is not a lot. But apparently, Bruce, in two hours he already found the most trash bar. I am not the same exactly but, I don’t know, I go to places and I have some intuition, as I’ve always worked with nonprofessionals. If you want different things from actors and you don’t give a shit about professionality, obviously you are still focused on the photogenic aspect but also more on the human aspect. Self-confidence is what counts, but I always want to have fun when shooting. So the first criterion is the human part, liking somebody, then it’s my job to make them good. It’s not their responsibility.
This is one of the key points of the way I work with actors. There will be tense moments. There will be maybe violence, maybe a lot of things, friction, of course. I know what people think about friction nowadays, but if you don’t want friction, you stay away. It’s simple.
What do you mean by “friction” exactly?
The friction of working, of problems. The tension. Imagine on Liberté, it’s not easy to do this, you know? I’m not scary, if somebody complains they can always move on and never have a problem with anybody. But if you are here and in the film, and it’s a fiction and, you know, it’s a representation, what is the problem? If you have to be naked, or simulate fucking this guy, you just undress, dress again and it’s over. You do it. It’s almost childish to think that this can be dangerous. But at the same time, of course, in some way it is a little bit dangerous.
From the very beginning I say, it can get tense. I don’t believe in progressive creation or communication or whatever, I think of filmmaking as non-communicative, because the camera sees other things. So what we create, it’s captured, and for me, for the camera to get more interesting things, it has to be based upon destruction. From the beginning I say: you are not responsible for anything. I will not judge you. I will not complain. You are not responsible for the quality of your performance, I am. So feel free, you know, enjoy it. Get the money, that’s all.
Things can be more tense but at least don’t worry about the pressure of being ultimately responsible for your own performance. And this gives a little bit of relief to the actors. There will be ups and downs, but I don’t see any other way to create new things and to push people a little bit towards unknown territories. My idea is Picasso’s, “I don’t seek, I find.”
A friend of mine who ran into you in Cannes said that you spoke effusively about Michael O’Leary, the CEO of Ryanair. Is there something of O’Leary in the character of De Roller?
No, it’s different. It’s going further. But there is something trash in Michael O’Leary that fascinates me. I don’t know, but it’s somewhere in my mind… an idea maybe for my next film. Michael O’Leary. Planes. A crash. It will be expensive, but maybe there is hope.
He’s a sort of archetype of the neoliberal European, at least that’s the perception in Ireland.
Yes, he’s full of paradoxes. These kinds of people are. They are family men, because they are Irish and very conservative in some aspects, and then it’s this craziness of manners. He has insulted all the politicians. He said that the president of Ireland is a donkey. And he did this in the most regulated business in the world. The airports are state-owned. The sky, the state owns it. You need permits from all the states in Europe. And in this over-regulated business, the guy that has openly insulted these people, in the press, saying the most atrocious things, it’s him who succeeds. So that is a mystery. There is something to solve about it, something to think about it.
Pacifiction screened at the Golden Apricot Film Festival in July and plays on October 5 and 6 at New York Film Festival, followed by a release from Grasshopper Film and Gratitude Films.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.