A chamber drama in which even the chamber itself is on the verge of collapse, Raoul Peck’s “Murder in Pacot” offers little scope for healing as it surveys the geographical and psychological wreckage wrought by Haiti’s catastrophic 2010 earthquake. A dramatic companion piece to “Fatal Assistance,” Peck’s 2013 doc on the same subject, this allegorical story of two couples warring across divisions of class and turf in Port-au-Prince’s post-quake wasteland positively trembles with the weight of its own symbolism; in his first narrative feature since 2000’s “Lumumba,” former Haitian culture minister Peck remains a political filmmaker of stern conviction. Overlong and far from subtle, “Pacot” is nonetheless engrossing enough to entice topically-minded arthouse distributors, and should make considerable waves in Francophone territories.
Peck claims Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Theorem” as the guiding inspiration for his original screenplay, co-written with veteran scribe Pascal Bonitzer (who also worked on “Lumumba”) and Haitian novelist Lyonel Trouillot. The surface resemblance is clear — both films detail the effect of a sexually magnetic drifter on a fractiously fragmented household — though the social context of the invasion and ensuing fallout in “Pacot” is a world away from Pasolini’s Euro-bourgeoisie satire. Instead, Peck’s narrative complicates notions of outsider identity by bringing race and nationality into the stew, while still identifying subtler conflicts within Haiti’s indigenous community.
For starters, the household in question is divided across every imaginable fault line, including the physical ruptures that have rendered most of the house — a once-substantial villa in suburban Port-au-Prince — uninhabitable. Having been all but bankrupted by the earthquake, its married, pointedly unnamed owners (played by Alex Descas and Nigerian singer-actress Ayo) are ordered by the authorities to renovate their ruined home or face having it demolished. To raise money for the necessary repairs, they are forced to move into an adjacent shed, renting out the house’s remaining rooms to Alex (Thibault Vincon), a young white Frenchman working for a foreign aid organization. That this would-be do-gooder is purportedly bringing relief to disenfranchised Haitians while benefiting from one couple’s homelessness is just one of the film’s many blunt ironies. The husband regards Alex with scarcely-contained hostility; his traumatized wife is haunted by less material losses, principally that of their adopted son, who disappeared during the disaster and may be buried under the rubble.
The intruding figure in this setup is not Alex, however, but his brash teenage lover Andremise (marvelously named newcomer Lovely Kermonde Fifi), an ambitious escort who makes no apology for using a foreign suitor to vault herself out of her lowly social class — and, potentially, out of Haiti altogether. Restyling herself as cosmopolitan seductress “Jennifer,” she is emblematic of her country’s deflated sense of national identity in the wake of the tragedy. “Haiti belongs to everyone now,” she declares caustically, as her none-too-bright boyfriend — the very embodiment of the white savior complex — collects photographs snapped with smiling street children as personal trophies. With their places in the local social hierarchy having been flipped by bad fortune, Andremise and her unwarned landlords initially regard each other with a mutual contempt, though it’s not long before the women form a sensual alliance of sorts that throws already edgy domestic conflicts out of whack.
Despite the film’s intimacy of scale — set over just eight days, methodically marked with title cards, it never leaves the confines of the property — this is expansive, high-stakes storytelling, ramping up the melodrama ahead of a punchy, somewhat overwrought climax, complete with thunderclaps and rain-soaked fisticuffs. “Murder in Pacot” (not the most discreet of titles) is most powerful, however, when it tunes into finer sociopolitical observation, as it does in one remarkable sequence where Andremise throws an all-native party in Alex’s absence, with previously separated classes grinding up against each other on the dance floor. Despite such fleeting glimpses of unification amid adversity, Peck’s outlook remains angrily pessimistic: Referred to at frequent intervals, the fetid odor emanating from the couple’s basement is yet another broad metaphor for decaying national foundations.
Handed such a bristling script, the actors are smart enough to underplay the material, largely letting the subtext speak for itself. Kermonde Fifi, in her screen debut, is a particularly riveting presence, playing the heated facade of “Jennifer” with sultry humor while exposing the cool, crafty wiring of the prematurely grown woman behind her.
Tech credits are stark but strong. With its liberal use of astute, peering close-ups, Eric Guichard’s bright, clear lensing contributes to the hothouse atmosphere of the enterprise — a virtue that could use more assistance from Alexandra Strauss’s overly deliberate editing.
Film Review: 'Murder in Pacot'
Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Special), Feb. 10, 2015. (Also in Toronto Film Festival — Masters.) Running time: 130 MIN. (Original title: “Meurtre a Pacot”)
(France-Haiti-Norway) A Velvet Film presentation and production in co-production with Figuier Production, Ape & Bjorn. (International sales: Doc & Film International, Paris.) Produced by Remi Grellety, Raoul Peck. Co-producer, Ruben Thorkildsen.
Directed by Raoul Peck. Screenplay, Peck, Pascal Bonitzer, Lyonel Trouillot. Camera (color, HD), Eric Guichard; editor, Alexandra Strauss; music, Alexei Aigui; production designer, Benoit Barou; costume designer, Paule Mangenot; sound, Eric Boisteau; supervising sound editor, Benjamin Laurent; re-recording mixer, Laurent; assistant director, Anne Gilles; casting, Sylvie Brochere.
Ayo, Alex Descas, Lovely Kermonde Fifi, Thibault Vincon, Albert Moleon. (French, Haitian Creole dialogue)