Where to begin with Albert Serra

As his Tahitian fever dream Pacifiction goes on release, we take a trip through Albert Serra’s cinema of decadence, death and droll absurdism.

Story of My Death (2013)

Why this might not seem so easy  

Whenever Albert Serra presents a new film, he has no qualms about declaring to the audience they are about to see something extraordinary. The Catalan director gets away with this swagger because he is a charismatic showman – and because, as one of the boldest visionaries of 21st-century cinema, he never fails to deliver. 

He founded his own production company, Andergraun Films, in 2001 to support his uncompromising vision, and makes films that combine the playful and absurdist with the deep and spiritual in a constantly surprising manner. His work bears echoes of Dalí and Warhol, Bresson and Pasolini, but it is always utterly, radically distinctive. 

Serra’s supreme confidence manifests on set as a trust of his intuition, the camera and the process, without micromanaging crew or cast for results. Previously describing his work as cultivating a big field to find small flowers, he prefers to shoot with three cameras at once, believing actors (he enlists both nonprofessionals and professionals) confused by a little chaos can drop their guards and better reveal truths. Moments in which he finds rare magic are edited together from many hours of footage. 

Taking on the ultimate Spanish epic, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, for his first fiction feature, Honour of the Knights (2006), did not daunt him. He has developed a gift for radically stripping back the kind of stories so famed they are embedded in the human psyche, whether it is the Bible, in Birdsong (2008), or Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Casanova’s memoirs in Story of My Death (2013), relegating plot in favour of long takes that rely on hypnotic aura and textured immersion.

Serra’s career has spanned film installations, shorts, documentary and theatre as he pushes the bounds of the medium (his 2018 stage production for Berlin’s avant-garde Volksbühne of Liberté was divisive due to what purists saw as an insolent disregard for conventional action and acting presence).

The best place to start – The Death of Louis XIV 

Serra’s most accessible film plot-wise, which is no less painterly and atmospheric for that, is The Death of Louis XIV (2016), which plays out in the bedchamber of France’s longest-reigning king. It’s 1715, and, extravagantly wigged but feeble, he’s gradually succumbing to gangrene and cardiac arrhythmia. The smell of decay is palpable, as his fawning staff tend to the narcissistic patient, and courtiers come and go. 

The Death of Louis XIV (2016)

The spectacle of this death was originally commissioned by the Centre Pompidou in Paris as a 15-day re-enactment inside a glass cage – an idea that didn’t eventuate as performance art, but that Serra eventually realised in cinematic form. French New Wave star Jean-Pierre Léaud portrays the fearsome but fading monarch as he must face the reality that even absolute power is eventually rendered impotent by corporeal mortality. 

What to watch next 

Story of My Death also envelops us in baroque costume and candlelight, with a shocking bodily frankness and earthy carnality. In inspired audacity, it merges Casanova’s memoirs with the legend of Dracula, as the ageing but lascivious libertine (Vicenç Altaió) decamps from Switzerland and travels to the Carpathians. There, the transgressive count appears thirsting after blood to darken the scene, embodying the violent Romanticism that eclipsed Enlightenment rationality.

Serra’s talent for distilling overdetermined texts into mesmeric experiences, made new in their peculiarity, already shaped his early features. Don Quixote, the 17th-century classic, became in Honour of the Knights a slow and idling journey through the Catalan landscape. It is low on adventurous action and oriented to minimalist contemplation and natural detail. The questing friends Quixote (Lluís Carbó) and Sancho Panza (Lluís Serrat) exchange the odd thought on chivalry, while Serra is more fascinated by the elusive qualities of energy and entropy. 

Birdsong (2008)

Mysterious yet stripped of grandiosity or sentiment, Birdsong is a meeting of the divine and the profane that is shot in luminous black and white. We join the Three Wise Men as, guided by a star, they search for the newborn baby Jesus to prostrate themselves before. They bicker in circular fashion about the route, and even discuss visions in dreams with spare matter-of-factness. Their trek through otherworldly terrain (shot in Iceland and the Canary Islands) has a droll absurdism that stems from their lack of awareness of the dramatic gravity of their pilgrimage. 

Serra’s latest film, Pacifiction (2022), is set in a modern-era Tahiti of palm trees, nightclub dancers in ceremonial garb, and saturated sunsets that glow like a gaudy postcard. It’s a marked departure from old-world settings. Still, in the vague and dreamlike way it touches on post-colonialism, preferencing a surreal, conspiratorial mood over plot momentum or political positioning, it is Serra through and through.

Pacifiction (2022)

De Roller (Benoît Magimel), France’s white-suited high commissioner, goes about his daily rounds of meetings and killing languorous island time with an air of suave vanity and casual entitlement. Amid unpopular plans for a new casino, and rumours there is a submarine near the shore, with nuclear testing set to resume, his true allegiances are veiled and ambiguous, as is the nature of his relationship with Shannah (Pahoa Mahagafanau), a trans hotel worker in his orbit. A truly singular and disconcerting vision that defies simple interpretation or ideological reading, it has been widely declared the director’s most ambitious, impressive work yet.

Where not to start

Distraction and frustration complicate freedom and titillation in Liberté (2019), the most sexually risqué and confronting of Serra’s films. It’s set in an 18th-century cruising ground in the nocturnal woods outside Berlin, where a band of libertines exiled from the puritan court of Louis XVI indulge a more clandestine lifestyle. The writings of the Marquis de Sade and Catherine Millet’s The Sexual Life of Catherine M. left their marks on a film with a rich soundscape in which much happens beyond the frame and in the realm of the imaginary. It’s a painterly, shadow-laden array of voyeurism, whippings and golden showers that reveals decadence as an impossible utopian dream: democratising but creating nothing to outlast the night, once its appetites are consumed. 

Pacifiction is in cinemas and on BFI Player from 21 April 2023.

Story of My Death and Liberté are coming to BFI Player on 24 April.

A season of Albert Serra’s films runs at the ICA from 19 to 27 April.

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