‘Murder in Pacot’: Berlin Review

Courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival
Gets off to a slow start but snowballs to a powerful finale 

Natural disasters disrupt the class certainties of a middle-class couple in Raoul Peck's return to the devastated island of Haiti

A symbolically-charged two-couple drama confined to the shambles of a middle-class home after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Murder in Pacot (Meutre à Pacot) slowly builds the tension until the shocking final sequence nimbly puts the last piece in place and everything makes sickening sense. As a fictional companion piece to director Raoul Peck’s documentary about the earthquake’s aftermath, the 2013 Fatal Assistance, it was shot almost simultaneously on what looks like a shoestring, yet without artistic compromise. Peck has had his greatest success in the fictional realm with memorable films like The Man on the Shore and Lumumba, and for all the claustrophobic concentration of keeping the action tethered to one set, this is a more powerful piece of filmmaking than the hard-hitting doc. It's slow-starting and may be a little too theatrical for some audiences, but it should work well in French-language markets where the director has an almost cult following.

The screenplay by Peck, renowned Haitian writer Lyonel Trouillot and Pascal Bonitzer examines the confusion of social roles in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, when masters and servants, rich and poor, may temporarily change places. The premise, brilliantly laid out by the cast, is that social class is stronger than race and nationality and has a tendency to reassert itself in all-too familiar patterns. This abstract idea takes root in the extreme realism of the setting, the collapsed house which hosts a literal skeleton in its rubble. Though he frustrates the viewer’s natural desire to glimpse the devastated city (and he must have had plenty of spectacular footage on hand), Peck uses this microcosm to edgy effect. When the  camera does poke its nose outside the villa’s gate, it finds only the horror of body bags collected by dumpsters and a clean-up crew ludicrously sweeping dust off the street.

In this apocalyptic world, the story takes its cue from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema, describing the disruptive sexual effect a young woman has when she comes to live with a family -- a man (Alex Descas) and his younger wife (Joy Olasunmibo Ogunmakin) -- who have been hit hard by the disaster. Not only does their fine two-story villa lie in pieces in the heart of a leafy bourgeoise community in Port-au-Prince; their young son is also missing. He’s adopted and so, for the man, not their “real” son, but the woman feels very differently.  Adding to the tension of the missing boy is a very unpleasant stench coming from somewhere nearby, which they pretend not to smell.

An Italian engineer turns up one day and decrees the villa unsafe.  He has the authority to tear it down unless they make major repairs fast, and to scrape together some cash, they move into the shell of a small out-building while they rent the main house out to Alex (Thibault Vincon), a French relief worker who has a very generous housing allowance. What they aren’t expecting is that he brings his sassy Haitian girlfriend Andremise (Lovely Kermonde Fifi) with him. But they swallow their anger and distaste because they need the rent.

The two homeowners (never named) are patricians, in contrast to Alex and the on-the-make Andremise, a girl of humble origins who laughably renames herself “Jennifer”. The married couple studied and met abroad; he is a writer, and she has never cooked or cleaned anything in her life. As they struggle to cope with losing everything, they embody the suffering of Haiti’s middle class, and their material and emotional losses create a strong bond with the audience – one that will be totally broken by the end of the film.

A bravura cast helps the one-location drama to work. As the intellectual husband who goes off the deep end of despair, Descas recalls other tragic figures from Peck’s dramatic repertoire. He is commanding without being sympathetic, while Olasunmibo Ogunmakin as the wife hides equally startling feelings beneath her delicate-to-prim, but more likeable, exterior. Kermonde Fifi, the Jennifer of the story, is an often humorous, unchained force of nature who unleashes the other three characters’ repressed sexual cravings. While her unabashed social climbing via the bedroom and her improbable intention to marry Alex initially make her a source of scorn, the young actress gradually reveals Jennifer's very human flip side and turns the tables on the audience. Her assertion that “the country belongs to everyone now that it’s ruined” is probably the moment that tips the balance in her favor, especially when Alex, who had seemed nice and harmless up to this point, turns mean, and their melancholy hosts become exploitative.

Photographed with piercing clarity by Eric Guichard, it's a thought-provoker that resonates beyond its own time and place. Trimming the two-hour-plus running time might help it take off earlier.
Production companies: Velvet Film, Figuier Production, Ape&Bjorn
Alex Descas, Joy Olasunmibo Ogunmakin, Thibault Vincon, Lovely Kermonde Fifi
Director: Raoul Peck
Raoul Peck, Lyonel Trouillot, Pascal Bonitzer
Producers: Remi Grellety, Raoul Peck

Director of photography: Eric Guichard
Production designer: Benoit Barouh
Editor: Alexandra Strauss

Music: Alexei Aigui
Sales: Doc and Film International

No rating, 130 minutes