Valentin Noujaïm’s requiem for a razed nightclub
ONLY ONE PERSON dances in Valentin Noujaïm’s short film Pacific Club, 2023, named for Le Pacific Club Privé, a quondam nightclub once located in a parking garage several stories below an office building in La Défense, the steely, corporate fortress built just outside of Paris. Open tous les nuits to a predominantly Arab, North African, and immigrant clientele for the better part of the 1980s, the Pacific spun bops by Québécois R&B act Boule Noire, American soul singer Lillo Thomas, and Egyptian-born, Franco-Italian chanteuse and gay icon Dalida, among others; the club also introduced Raï music and hip-hop to two generations of Black and Arab people in the region who were old enough to go, or at least hear about it from their older siblings or cousins. Noujaïm’s film ambulates across the concrete landscape where the Pacific Club once stood; his dancer, the Paris-based choreographer Benjamin Taos Bertrand, begins a routine on the floor of a vacant parking lot, lying prostrate. A sudden jolt moves his limbs to stiffen; a second propels him a foot or two forward. As he gets up, he glides and rotates to the aortic swells and beatless textures of a track by electronic music duo Space Afrika, and skids across the gray, unpeopled complex with movements that quote ballet and breakdance, occasionally reeling back into a bystander’s stroll—a dance that falls and swoops, hides itself, and after a few moments, vanishes.
For several years now, Noujaïm, born in the northwest town of Angers, France, to Egyptian and Lebanese parents and based currently in Frankfurt, has written and directed a suite of films that stud documentary storytelling with elements of myth and science fiction to frame narratives about the disappearance of places and peoples, and about the cosmos of possibility that exists just behind the elaborate architecture the French state erects for history to better forget them. In 2021’s Les Filles Destinées (Daughters of Destiny), the disappointment felt by a trio of queer girls at the closing of their favorite bar gets interrupted by an opportunity for interstellar travel; in 2020’s “auto-film” L’Étoile Bleue (The Blue Star), Noujaïm’s family history is told using a palimpsest of photographs his grandfather took while in the Lebanese army, DV footage captured on Noujaïm’s return to Lebanon, and reels pulled from NASA’s archives. The mostly silent footage is accompanied by several overlapping voiceovers in Arabic and in French, including one by French actor Denis Lavant, whose distinctive rasp tells the story of a brown man who, on receiving transmissions from a distant planet called Blue Star, abandons his family for a quixotic assimilation fantasy. Pacific Club is the first work of the director’s “Le Défense” trilogy (the second, a fictional film titled To Exist Under Permanent Suspicion, starring Saint Omer’s Kayije Kagame, will be released this fall). Pacific exhumes the catacombic liveliness of the eponymous, much-beloved club to offer an oblique view onto Mitterrand-era France, intimating how the former president’s racist administration exploited AIDS, real estate development, and heroin to oppress Arab life in the aftermath of France’s colonial rule.
The film opens with newsreel footage depicting the pharaonic architectural program Mitterrand oversaw during his fourteen years in office, darting Paris from the Louvre to La Défense with postmodern carbuncles lionizing the French Socialist Party’s doomed return to power. We see a partially constructed Grand Arche de la Défense, the cuboid structure symbolizing “Fraternity” and erected for the bicentenary of the French Revolution, looming above a district built over razed slums, shantytowns, derelict factories, and farmlands, once home to tens of thousands of Algerian migrants and citizens. Noujaïm’s film makes scant reference to the neighborhood’s decades-long prehistory, whose leveling ultimately gave life to the Pacific Club. Instead, it braids interviews together with ludic choreography, animation, and found footage to create an elusive picture of the bygone boîte at the work’s center, an elegy divested of mythomania. At no point does Noujaïm peddle in clichéd claims about nightlife’s revolutionary potential, nor does he offer a genealogy of the Pacific Club as the progenitor of venues like The Galaxy, La Maine Jaune, The Midnight, and The Fun Raï, which opened their doors to Paris’s Arab population throughout the Mitterrand years.
Retrieval and retreat—this is the errant flux that animates Noujaïm’s aesthetics, as he looks up at the glassy steelscapes of La Défense as a cold afterworld or antimonument. Pacific Club’s flânerie is anchored in the testimony of Azedine Benabdelmounene, a French-Algerian man born in Paris’s nineteenth arrondissement who, years before agreeing to be filmed, helped Noujaïm move apartments in Paris. Clean-cut and in his fifties, we see Benabdelmounene in alternating takes that depict him from a distance, unmoved by Défense Plaza, and in a medium-shot, where he speaks frankly to the camera. His memories of visiting the Pacific are conveyed through anecdotes of the elder siblings who took him there (“Since I didn’t have much money on me, I would just borrow stuff from my older brother”); why they went there (“we wouldn’t be allowed elsewhere”); and what they wore: (“Adidas Tobacco shoes, turtlenecks . . . everyone called it the REURTI [a slangy inversion of word tireur, the French word for shooter] trend.”). Later, his narrative shuttles us to scenes outside Pacific Club, where fights broke out between young men, heroin was bought and sold, and les flics turned a blind eye: “As long as it’s between Arabs and Blacks, who cares.”
A dirge played by the Paris-based alto saxophonist Julian Mezence closes the film. The dancer has slipped away, and Benabdelmounene, having spoken about the loss of a teenage friend to the heroin epidemic, has fallen silent. A simple animation of the narrow dancehall is introduced. It floats in space, and inside the room, several line-drawn silhouettes waver in small groups, their whispers muted, their intimate gestures sapped of dimension. Slowly the black box spins out of focus, like a die cast out into the dust of star-spangled space, which, like history, is fuzzy and incomplete.