Essays: Dennis Lim on “Nocturama”
A supremely cool-headed treatment of a highly combustible subject, Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama is a tour de force of paradox: a film that seems in some ways ripped from the headlines and in others stubbornly detached from the contemporary moment. Its audacity is inseparable from its insistence on abstraction, its willingness to turn what is commonly deemed “unthinkable” into an open-ended thought experiment.
Spanning a period of approximately 14 hours, Nocturama portrays both the execution and the aftermath of a coordinated series of terrorist attacks around the French capital. The perpetrators are a collective of Parisians in their teens and early 20s from across lines of race and A class. About half are white and privileged, enrolled at or studying for the Sciences Po, traditional breeding ground of French political elites. The remainder, who appear to be of North African descent, mostly hail from the banlieues outside the city. Forgoing much of the backstory that other films would typically include — for instance, how the members of this cell come together and become radicalized — Bonello plunges us into the proceedings in medias res, introducing his characters in the final stages of preparation as they traverse the city.
Converging in clusters along the Paris Métro, the young insurrectionists spread out on their various missions, armed in some cases with guns and plastic explosives. Despite a zig-zagging timeline that affords multiple simultaneous vantages and the occasional flashback to drop a few clues about relationships within the group, the film sustains a relentless forward motion, aided by Bonello’s own sleek, propulsive electronic score. With its on-screen time stamps, precise urban cartography, and brisk, process-oriented action, the largely dialogue-free first half — the most conspicuous sounds are footsteps and transit-system white noise — combines an obsessive level of detail with a disorienting absence of specifics. While Nocturama refrains from digging into individual psychology or naming a motivating ideology, the group’s targets all turn out to be sites or emblems of state and financial power: the Ministry of the Interior, the Stock Exchange, the Tour Total high-rise in the La Défense business district, and the gilded equestrian statue of Joan of Arc opposite the Louvre.
Nocturama reveals itself as a film of two mirrored halves, structured along diametrically opposed experiences of time and space. After the explosions, the gang holes up for the night at a high-end department store, with the help of an associate working there as a security guard. In this windowless bubble of luxury, time seems to stand still and the outside world falls away—replaced, not coincidentally, by an idealized version of it. Confining the action within the walls of this sanctuary-cum-prison — a space not unlike the Belle Époque brothel of House of Tolerance (2011) or the hothouse nightclubs and ateliers of Saint Laurent (2014) — Nocturama becomes a signature Bonello “brain film,” to use the director’s own term, in which a single, richly delineated location is as much a mental as a physical space.
In one of its more mordant jokes, Nocturama gives entirely new meaning to the notion of killing time at the mall. As the kids nonchalantly try on designer clothes and ransack the food hall, it becomes clear that this consumerist paradise — or “dialectical fairyland,” to borrow from Walter Benjamin’s working title for his first essay on the Paris Arcades — is most conducive to fantasy and even hallucination. (The iconic Samaritaine building, also a memorable location in Holy Motors, provides the exteriors.) News reports of the city in flames materialize on a wall of flat-screen TVs, rendered additionally surreal for being accompanied by the brain-stabbing hook of Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair” blasting through the Bang & Olufsen speakers. Spectral presences abound, whether in the form of fallen comrades or the store’s faceless mannequins, positioned more than once as literal reflections of the characters. As the night advances and cabin fever sets in, the cell members’ poised efficiency gives way to casual recklessness: David (Finnegan Oldfield) ventures out for cigarette breaks and invites in a homeless couple. The mall’s uncanny atmosphere compels the kids to new levels of role play, and may in fact be driving them insane. Yacine (Hamza Meziani) re-enacts the tricycle ride from The Shining with a go-cart and applies copious lipstick to perform a show-stopping lip-sync of Shirley Bassey’s version of “My Way.”
A master of mood and mise-en-scène, Bonello is also a consummate cinephile who wears his influences lightly. In its first half, Nocturama — with its provocative combination of suspense and affectlessness — often calls to mind a film that the director screened for his cast: Alan Clarke’s Elephant, a startling, context-free depiction of a series of sectarian killings in Northern Ireland. The second half harks back to such landmark genre subversions as John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 and George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. But for a deeper understanding of what he’s up to, there is no better key than Bonello’s own work. Like his two previous movies, House of Tolerance and Saint Laurent, Nocturama is a collective portrait attuned both to fluctuating group dynamics and to the tectonic realignments happening around that group. The temporal movement of these films may be complex, but they all revolve around world-historical inflection points. House of Tolerance is set on the cusp of the fin de siècle, as the sex trade is beginning to adapt to the unstoppable force of 20th-century capitalism. The trajectory of Saint Laurent, restricted to the designer’s most productive and debauched decade, matches the long comedown from the 1960s, stopping just short of the cultural retrenchment of the 1980s. Nocturama sets itself the trickier task of planting a stake in the shifting sands of the present, seeking to capture a moment that by definition still eludes our grasp.
Bonello had long wanted to make a film about a violent insurrection — he was already discussing it on his press tour for House of Tolerance — but real-world events have narrowed the frame of reference for Nocturama’s reception. Production commenced in the summer of 2015, a few months after the Charlie Hebdo attack; Bonello was editing when the Bataclan massacre occurred later that year; the film was released in France the following summer, a few weeks after the Bastille Day truck attack in Nice. John Waters, calling Nocturama one of the year’s best films in Artforum, gleefully proclaimed it “thoroughly irresponsible,” while Positif condemned it as “an irresponsible film.” The recurring mantra of responsibility bespeaks an inclination to read Nocturama as a reflection of terrorism as we know it today, except that the film’s ambitions are larger and more diffuse.
Those searching the movie for explanations inevitably latch on to the scene in which David, wandering an eerily depopulated Paris after the bombs go off, comes upon a young woman on a bicycle (Adèle Haenel), who blankly observes that the attacks were “bound to happen.” Or they point to André (Martin Petit-Guyot), who in advising another student on the university entrance exams provides some glibly fashionable examples of poli-sci academese: “perfect democracy creates its own enemy”; “civilization is the condition for the downfall of civilization.” But it is a mistake, in a Bonello film, to look for meaning exclusively in words. The underlying logic of his work is typically more felt than announced. Disrupting the film’s correlations to the real world, and in the process denying us the easy boogeymen so common to age-of-terror rhetoric, Bonello moves Nocturama closer to the modus operandi of the Surrealists: in other words, the film is less interested in the specific circumstances of its teenage terrorists than in the contradictory, possibly unconscious drives and desires of the age.
The ambiguity of Nocturama will not please viewers expecting a clear-cut denunciation of terrorism (by which most people mean militant Islamic terrorism). What it offers instead is an intuitive, sardonic understanding that modern-day terrorism is tailor-made for the society of the spectacle. As abstract as it can be, Nocturama provokes a shock of recognition. It describes a world that is unmistakably ours: one defined by absolute capitalism, total surveillance, impotent fury, and nihilist ultra-violence. The apparent absence of ideology in the film matches a moment when belief systems seem to matter less than brand awareness, whether that brand is Nike or ISIS or Trump. Bonello has wrestled in previous films — most notably 2001’s The Pornographer — with the state of post-’68 political radicalism, and Nocturama, with the brute inevitability of its ending, delivers the grimmest verdict yet on the matter. To borrow a line from Robert Bresson’s The Devil, Probably: “There won’t be any revolution — it’s too late.”
Dennis Lim is the director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the author of David Lynch: The Man From Another Place.
This essay is included with our Blu-ray and DVD of Nocturama, available here.