It’s relatively rare for films to deal with natural disasters and their aftermath outside of the polar opposite generic realms of the big-budget popcorn-muncher and the fastidious, politicised documentary.1 Using the devastating Haitian earthquakes of 2010 as its backdrop, it’s exciting to see Murder in Pacot, the latest film from activist, ex-politician, and director Raoul Peck, instead use rubble-strewn Port-au-Prince as the considered, smartly constructed setting for a film captivating in its own right – a film about colonialism, classism, race, and death. Some elements of its narrative styling are ineffective – most importantly ill-advised callbacks to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, rendered redundant in a film which could otherwise stand on its own – and some other moments of confused verbosity also mar the representational issues at stake. Peck’s strengths, though, lie in his perceptive, academic, and literate responses to the politics of poverty and empire, and Murder in Pacot, at its best points, channels these themes into dialogue and visual composition to rival any great political cinema.
In the aftermath of the disaster, an unnamed middle-class couple live among the ruins of their home, marked for demolition by overseas inspectors should they be unable to fund its repair. Desperate, they rent the only indoor habitable room to a white aid worker, Alex (Thibault Vinçon), who soon becomes embroiled in a relationship with Andrémise, a local girl of uncertain providence (Lovely Kermonde Fif). The wife (Joy Olasunmbo Ogunmakin) is hopeful and resourceful but downbeat, the husband (Alex Descas) practical but pessimistic. The background to their lives, and all that they may have lost, are revealed or part-revealed only slowly, in a masterful balance of pacing and exposition. The story is styled around little mysteries: what has become of the couple’s missing adopted son Joel, and why do they seem tentative to grieve for him? What about Alex, whose affability is offset by an aloofness that alienates him from the Haitian public he is employed (in an uncertain role) to assist? And what is that smell, remarked upon by most of the characters, but never identified?
Peck frames these tense puzzles against the story’s inexorable build-up, as we await the murder of its title and opening credits – the sense is, though, unavoidable, that all of the nuance of the characters’ interaction is destined to be obliterated by the resolution of the narrative’s central question, whenever it may come. Like Terence Stamp’s unnamed visitor in the 1968 Pasolini film, both Alex and Andrémise are cast as ‘mysterious’ and thereby threatening, but the social commitment of Peck’s film makes it inevitable that they will be fleshed out in a more traditional sense as the film goes on, stripping them of the ethereal nature of Stamp’s character. Indeed, jettisoning Alex from the story would only have lost its racial rather than sexual elements, and it’s hard not to feel that these overtones of the colonial imperative often underlying NGO work are fundamentally more interesting than the unconvincing femme fatale supplied by the newcomer Fifi. Even she is more interesting as an anti-imperialist than as a seductress, despite it ostensibly being her main role, in one scene mocking Alex and his mission by claiming that “we pretend you are saving us.” The film’s only interest in humour, too, is spawned by the inherent absurdity of a Western charity worker renting property from black ‘victims’ of a humanitarian crisis. The almost dystopian “BEYOND AID UNLIMITED” emblazoned Facebook-style on the care packages and t-shirts supplied by Alex’s company speaks acerbically of the commoditisation of charity for many in the developed world.
Leaving aside its muddier points and worthwhile asides, though, the high points of the film come in its consistently effective stylisation of the issues at hand through its mise-en-scène. The smooth white plaster of the couple’s home is cast in relief both against their dark skin – a conscious reminder of the dissonance a white audience will likely feel at seeing a middle-class Afro-Caribbean setting rendered so plainly – and against the formless grey rubble surrounding every wall. The spatial symmetry of the building is also used to emphasise the height of the guest room above the remaining sleepout rooms occupied by the couple, so that Alex appears on a kind of balcony like a malevolent lord. Music is supplied in the form of wilfully repetitive swelling string sections which recall a Chabrol thriller, while Alain Resnais is also a clear touchpoint for Pacot’s long shot architectural framing and mood of imperial malaise. That Raoul Peck’s film largely manages to synthesise these influences into a compelling whole while also making a meaningful statement about the contested politics of disaster relief is enough to forgive its clumsy aspects, and instead welcome one of the more thoughtful earthquake films you are likely to see.