For exactly one afternoon last month, the streets of Toronto were abuzz with a question: Why was Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama not selected for the New York Film Festival? Even the meagerest blurb will clue you into the film’s attendant predicament, as Bonello’s screenplay follows a cadre of Parisian youths who take it upon themselves to coordinate the bombing of four landmarks - an attack whose buildup makes up only the film’s breathless early passages. Initial reports from France indicate Bonello’s film is yet to catch fire upon domestic release; although the screenplay was written in 2011 and production concluded well before the Bataclan attacks last November, no crystal ball is required to suppose Bonello will spend an indefinitely long press tour fielding pointless questions about Charlie Hebdo and Islamic State. In fact, the movie ascribes motivation to its radical actors by sidestepping a priori conversations about “terrorism” entirely: in order for Nocturama to work its magic, the viewer must occupy the central meeting place of urban alienation (and reflexive abandonment of the present) that has historically sent people ducking into movie theaters in the first place.
Nocturama’s contemporaneity is thus a byway to its tragic classicism—although for those who can’t quite relinquish their literal-mindedness for two hours, it may instead mean multiple willful suspensions of disbelief. (I admit to having spent quality time in the latter camp.) But these are questions for an audience. From the jump, Bonello’s antiheroes— a class-and-race-agnostic ensemble, all but one participants in their late teens or early twenties—are already inoculated against the aforementioned anomie, having submitted themselves to an idyll that each believes will carry the day; they have withdrawn their consent and thus their individualism. There are indeed moments of extra-literal torchbearing that explicate their philosophical antecedents, but they’re reasonably deft of touch. Sarah (played by Laure Valentinelli, one of several nonprofessionals cast by Bonello) meets with the well-to-do André (Martin Petit-Guyot) some weeks before the attack to discuss classwork; he breaks down his graduating thesis that “civilization is a condition for the downfall of civilization.” while she announces her plan to skip the exam outright, advising that—vis-à-vis academia—“we’ll both end up like our dads.” This is probably as close as Bonello gets to the soft left-punching of, say, Olivier Assayas’ Something In The Air (among other works), but the looming explosions stand to test both André’s thesis and Sarah’s naivety.
These kids’ individual walks of life are acknowledged, but not detailed: are they citizens of democracy, or subjects of capitalism? Bonello knows viewers will have their antennae out for linkages between what’s onscreen and the last 15 years’ worth of headlines, and largely shrugs off the responsibility to explain. When the bombs finally do go off, the heretofore nameless event has become its own policy declaration, whereas the team huddle the night beforehand has ascribed a liminal, dreamlike quality to this eight-person revolution. Post-strategy session, the kids sip vodka and bob their heads to techno music (incidentally, composed by the filmmaker himself) in a moonlit living room, snacking and playing video games like they’re having a post-pubescent slumber party. The camera soaks up their palpable youth and consummate beauty—this is, after all, a Bonello film—and so Nocturama steels itself against cautionary interpretations. Historic inevitability and the denial of consequence are not the same things as “radicalization” or “blowback” per se: the question of the plan’s feasibility drives the film’s more conventional “thriller” first half, with a certain paranoid awareness that the revolution is as real as the teenagers are willing to believe it. It is the film’s great lacuna, the image at which they all stare when nobody is particularly looking at anything.
At least, that’s true until the explosions have begun—at the Ministry of the Interior, the Stock Exchange and the Tour Total skyscraper complex—and Sabrina (Manal Issa) adorns herself in a city worker’s uniform to douse the bronze statue of Joan of Arc in petroleum and light a match. The team ditch their burner phones and abscond to the La Samaritaine mall complex, where Omar (Rabah Nait Oufella), one of their faction, works security; he tells them the mall’s security personnel are bound and gagged when, in actuality, he murdered them in cold blood—an event withheld from Bonello’s onscreen string of events. While the group escapes notice and ascends to a kind of bourgeois valhalla as reward for their troubles, the offscreen becomes Nocturama’s pressing philosophical question: Sarah’s boyfriend David (Finnegan Oldfield), the de facto leader of the group, resolves not to check the news until the whole thing has blown over—although again, the mechanics of how the mall will reopen while its squatters go unnoticed is cursorily addressed. And what if that’s the point? The plan’s interconnectedness may well be its downfall, although the La Samaritaine complex housing the revolution suggests it was perhaps all a dream in the first place.
Once attacked, the state vanishes almost entirely. Unsubtle though the verticalized department-store fantasia may be, it’s a worthy safe space for Bonello’s reverse-expository second half. There, the image of a French-Arab teenager having level-upped the gates of power—only to encounter himself as a sportswear mannequin a few hours later—has become one of the film’s enduring stills, while the French poster depicts the group standing above the City of Lights like a squad of teen superheroes, one panorama that most certainly does not appear in Bonello’s film. The irony cannot be lost on either side of the screen when one of the kids stammers out a self-justification: “We did something wild, something nobody’s ever done before.” Nocturama has been aligned with Carpenter, with Alan Clarke’s Elephant, with the structuralist dissembling of Jacques Tati and (of course) with Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers; to the list I would add both Daisies and If…, visions of corporeal decadence and escapist insurrection as reverse sides of the same coin, albeit flipped under a different austerity. It’s also impossible not to weigh Bonello’s brief glimpses of the bombings against the populist/genocidal vision of property destruction exported by Hollywood, wherein buildings declare war on people and millions are implied to suffer while nary a drop of blood is shed onscreen.
Film festivals may be powered by corporate tax writeoffs first, but perhaps the kneejerk churlishness of critics is only a little further down the list. My 140-character response to Bonello’s film at Toronto was “What if terrorism … but hot?” Indeed, the obfuscation of cinematic pleasure and political rigor is Nocturama’s concurrent fault line, whereby the demolition of barriers between so-called high and low cultures is a signal boost for a post-capitalist utopia one suspects will not really be waiting outside when the mall reopens. While Film Twitter lost its collective mind over the film’s needle-dropping of Willow Smith’s 2010 viral sensation “Whip My Hair” (in a European art film? The living cheek!) on the mall’s stereo system, less tenable is David’s decision to invite a homeless couple into the mall for chicken and wine—an act at once democratic in the 18th century sense, yet rife with the kind of self-sabotage Nocturama invites its viewers to seek behind every corner. Movies still have the power to burn themselves into our memories on their terms and not our own. I will never forget the image of Sarah staring with exasperation at the skyscraper’s flat glass surface, wondering why it hasn’t burst into flame yet, flush with the promise and paralysis of 21st century life.
Nocturama had its North American premiere at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival.
STEVE MACFARLANE is a writer, curator and filmmaker from Seattle, Washington. His writing has appeared in Cinema Scope, The White Review, Filmmaker Magazine and BOMB, among others.