A frenetic thriller that wears its cinephilia on its sleeve and has much to say to 21st century people.
Nocturama is a cogent, stylish film that is consistently engaging, however without managing to fully suck the viewer into its world. The most audacious and worthwhile feature of the film is the way in which writer-director Bertrand Bonello juxtaposes the aesthetic sensibility of the post-’68 New Left—think designer clothes and property-destroying bombings of usually-empty buildings—with the stylings of the Left today—a veritable rainbow coalition of multiculturalism and identity politics. This is a kinetic film with eternally-relevant themes, but it keeps the audience at a distance with its overly playful editing and aggressive music score.
The plot follows a ragtag group of young Parisians as they set up a four-pronged terrorist attack across the city. The exposition is vague as Bonello patiently shows the story to the viewer—no telling involved. Eventually, the teenagers have planted explosives in a government building, a skyscraper under renovation and a series of parked cars in addition to having coated a statue in a flammable liquid. In a single coordinated attack, the bombs are detonated and the statue engulfed in fire. The team of young terrorists then take shelter in a sprawling department store for the evening.
The first half of the film, where each character is introduced, sets the tone. There is little dialogue, even less clarity regarding whether the characters know each other and quirky editing that relies upon a time stamp to keep the viewer oriented. Certain events are shown repeatedly throughout Nocturama from different perspectives, but always with a clock displaying the current time of day to signal that the cuts between scenes have moved backwards in time.
Late in the first half, the entire bombing plot becomes clear and the connection between each of the characters—most of whom remain nameless to this point—is established. Even here the true motivations for their terror attack remain ambiguous. Bonello offers some clues, such as when one character asks what comes next for a society after decadence; the answer given by his counterpart: rebirth. The terrorists want to shock France into a more authentic existence, an idea straight out of the ‘60s, as is their method: using discontinued Yugoslav plastic explosives to destroy buildings with a minimum loss of life. Bonello cleverly balances on a narrow edge here, employing overt homages of both Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia to highlight that the decadence of modernity cuts across political divides. The terrorists of Nocturama are out to liberate society from a cultural malaise rather than a political one.
Bonello clearly delights in the ‘70s. Nocturama is made like the films of that decade, with its cross-cutting, occasional slow-motion or repetitive scene, the visual aid of the clock, the distracting diegetic soundtrack, the joy the characters derive from their clothing, and even the way the camera occupies spaces. The film also relishes the sensibilities of the ‘70s: young urban terrorists, many of whom are upper-class and rejecting their parents’ lifestyles; car bombs; a deep sense of patriotism; and a quixotic doomed-from-the-start inevitability about the terror attack’s consequences.
But Nocturama is very much set in our own time. The characters represent a racial, gender and class diversity that is intersectional almost to the point of parody. Screens, cameras, instant television news and smart phones are crucial plot devices. The intellectual figureheads of the film are Jean Baudrillard and Jacques Rancière rather than Louis Althusser and Jacques Lacan, a fact made most overt by the characters’ need for the television in order to truly experience their attack. They physically saw their explosions, but they only became real for them when they were later displayed on screen.
Most refreshingly, Nocturama is about terrorism but completely avoids any mention of religion. If any of the characters are Muslim, Christian or a believer in any other faith, that is left hidden from the viewer. The film instead interrogates the deep resonance of terrorism within French society, how as far back as the Revolution and the guillotine counter-state violence and youth revolts have been fundamental to what it means to be French. The punditry on our televisions should take note; after all, the first car bomb was detonated by an Italian anarchist in New York City. Terrorism is part of who we are and Nocturama is the most honest treatment of that fact in recent screen culture.
The editing – repetitive and far too predictable – gets wearying. The musical score is too loud, too present and ultimately a hindrance to the film. Strip away those elements, however, and this is a frenetic thriller that wears its cinephilia on its sleeve and has much to say to 21st century people.