Director: Bertrand Bonello
Cast: Finnegan Oldfield, Vincent Rottiers, Hamza Meziani, Manal Issa
Watch Nocturama online in the UK: Netflix UK
French director Bertrand Bonello has had an erratic track record with his films getting UK distribution. His early features The Pornographer (2001) and Tiresia (2003) are available on DVD, but 2011’s House of Tolerance was his last feature to get a British theatrical run, and barely one at that. 2014’s Saint Laurent didn’t get picked up for the UK, despite festival buzz, perhaps, in part, due to another biopic of the fashion designer being released the same year.
Nocturama, which premiered in 2016, has also been victim to distribution delays (not just in the UK), but there’s a pretty understandable reason why those with money were hesitant to strike deals. Although it was shot before the Paris terror attacks of November 2015, Nocturama’s plot concerning various bomb attacks across that same city, and its focus on those who perpetrate the acts, rather than anyone dealing with the aftermath, made it a particularly hot potato. And it’s already a pretty provocative work in the first place.
Thanks to Netflix, British viewers can finally see what the fuss is all about, and kudos to the streaming giant for picking up home media rights, for Nocturama is one of the key films of the last couple of years; a lightly experimental take on modern terrorism with a slow-burning creepiness and disconcerting blend of cheekiness and clinical style.
It’s not a spoiler to say that Nocturama is a film of two distinct halves. The first follows an ensemble of young people from different backgrounds, as they meticulously move around Paris, performing various tasks that will lead to a series of bombings and a couple of assassinations, with occasional onscreen timestamps to inform us of what everyone is up to at a given moment. They move as though possessed; barely a word is spoken for the film’s first 20 minutes.
Based on the identity of one assassinated party, a viewer can probably infer the mostly teenage terrorists have a bone to pick with capitalism, but while Bonello gives us some flashbacks to the plans being arranged, we’re never exactly sure of their goal. For most of the runtime, but particularly the first 50-odd minutes, we primarily get to know these people as bodies in motion, rather than traditional characters. There’s no back-story, no grand manifesto presented; we don’t even get to know most of their names until much later.
After they achieve their plans, the majority of the group hides out in a shopping complex for the film’s second half, with a couple of the participants’ whereabouts unknown. The first half of the movie is hypnotic, and its players seem hypnotised, but their rendezvous point, where all the cameras have been shut off, livens them up. As they hole up in the mall, some of them deal with the ramifications of their actions (like obsessing over perceived premonitions of getting caught), but they all end up relishing the hedonism the various stores allow – dressing up and living out fantasy lives, wallowing in the luxuries of capitalism.
If this second half sounds at all like George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, that would definitely seem to be an influence on Bonello – one particular dressing-up sequence actually reminded this writer of cult horror Night of the Comet. Dawn’s not the only film you can see the DNA of in Nocturama: others include John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (particularly in Bonello’s own synthy score), Alan Clarke’s Elephant, and the works of both Leos Carax and Brian De Palma (split-screens and split-diopter shots aplenty). It’s informed by a lot, but Bonello makes it all his own.
Nocturama is not an easy watch, and Bonello does little to make it a simple film to come to terms with. He doesn’t make his characters sympathetic, but he doesn’t necessarily demonise them. He doesn’t spend time with his terrorist cell having second thoughts before achieving their goal, or to make sure you know blowing up public spaces is bad, because, well, you should know that already.
With his detached style, Bonello embraces the contradictions and abstract qualities of his characters and scenarios, and prompts the viewer to find their own logic behind them. At one point, members of the group finally get to see a visualisation of their earlier actions via TV news footage, while Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair” plays at the same time in the store they’re in; a montage of images of burning buildings and vehicles ending up soundtracked by the hiccup-y voice of the daughter of Will Smith. Just as one character seems to be about to offer comment on the destruction they’ve caused, he, without a moment’s thought, swiftly changes the subject to discuss Willow Smith and how old she was when she recorded the song. It’s a darkly funny moment, emblematic of this surreal tour de force.