Review: Murder in Pacot (Peck, 2014) – SFIFF 2015

Photo by Yann Levy, courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

Photo by Yann Levy, courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

Seasoned director and Port-au-Prince native Raoul Peck‘s Murder in Pacot takes place immediately following Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake. An affluent couple (played by Alex Descas and Joy Olasunmibo Ogunmakin), finding their spacious house partially destroyed in the disaster, moves into the shed that their servant Joseph (Albert Moleón) previously occupied. When a state-employed structural engineer comes by to assess their property, they are told to repair their buildings immediately or face demolition. With no money or resources to begin construction, the man finds a French NGO worker named Alex (Thibault Vinçon) to rent the “habitable” portion of their home while the couple continues to live in the shed. Tensions mount when Alex moves into the house with his lusty Haitian girlfriend Andrémise (Lovely Kermonde Fifi).

Murder in Pacot has the feel of an allegory with the characters acting as stand-ins for archetypes rather than individuals in their own right. Under this reading, the man and the woman (who remain nameless) represent Haiti’s (older but not old) black upper class. She grew up abroad, is unused to living without servants, and appears at a painful loss in the squalor of her new surroundings. Less is known about the man. His steely realism suggests he is self-made—certainly less coddled. Alternately cold and furious, he goes about with a grim face and responds to his wife’s plaints with harsh practicality. And then there is the white man. In a disaster-struck developing country, well-meaning NGO workers like Alex with their desire to “help” and their thinly disguised senses of superiority are the nouveau colonist. Meanwhile, Andrémise is the new Haiti. She is young, ambitious, opportunistic, cunning. Though her origins may be humble, she is anything but. Throw them together and something nasty is bound to happen. Say, a murder.

The events of the film take place over the course of a little more than a week, segmented (in rather ominous fashion) by day. All action takes place in the present; that is, there are no flashbacks to the couple’s pre-earthquake lives—only bitter, sometimes cryptic, allusions. The unexplained strain between the man and the woman, the past that we the audience have to imagine, and the new present that the characters find themselves in all make for a taut viewing experience.

But, though the tension and hostility are palpable, they are not always easily understood. Perhaps because the characters are archetypes, their actions often seem erratic, random, inconsistent. I often found myself wondering, Why is she so angry? How come he is behaving so strangely? Alliances shift constantly on this emotional quicksand. Too quickly for me to follow. But what is obvious is that there is fury in every character, constantly frothing just beneath the surface until, finally, it explodes.

Murder in Pacot screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival this past spring. I will write on it further when I review Sand Dollars, what I consider its superior sister.