They say timing is everything, and that’s unfortunately the case with French auteur Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama, which tells the story of several young and beautiful Parisians who wreak havoc on their city with bombs, guns and hip-hop fueled anarchy. Shot before the terrorist attacks of last November, it’s impossible to watch it without thinking of what has happened since, and the film’s refusal to offer any true justification for its acts can seem remarkably shallow in light of current events.
But if you put reality aside and try to judge the movie in a sort of vacuum, there are definitely things worth salvaging — such as Bonello’s assured stylistic hand, which mixes fluid Steadicam shots with an array of tantalizing soundtrack choices, as well as an elliptical narrative that brings a handful of characters together in captivating ways, especially in the film’s suspenseful first half. It’s like Elephant meets Spring Breakers in contemporary Paris, which should help garner interest on the festival circuit (it is set to premiere in Toronto’s Platform competition) but will appeal only to offshore art house distributors willing to handle such an explosive item.
Bonello’s last two features, Saint Laurent and House of Tolerance, were both lush period pieces about characters abandoning themselves to the throes of beauty and decadence, with sumptuous costumes and production design serving as fitting decors. With its scaled-down look and visions of modern-day malaise, Nocturama is much closer to On War, an artsy cri de coeur that Bonello made in 2008, although it takes that film’s ideas of collective dystopia and puts them into practice here in disturbing ways.
Set during one disastrously long day and night, the story follows a group in their late teens and early twenties who commit a series of coordinated attacks around Paris, setting off bombs in several locations (a ministry, an office, a street) while gunning down the head of a powerful bank. A few flashbacks provide vague clues as to their intentions, but Bonello purposely avoids any rational or irrational explanations and simply keeps us in the heat of the moment, counting down the minutes until they set their city ablaze.
The film’s nearly dialogue-less opening follows the main players — lovebirds David (Finnegan Oldfield) and Sarah (Laure Valentinelli), brothers Yacine (Hamza Meziani) and Samir (Ilias Le Doré), spiteful rich kid Andre (Martin Guyot), nervous banlieue girl Sabrina (Manal Issa) and a kind of guru named Greg (Vincent Rottiers) — as they covertly head to multiple targets, picking up weapons and explosives along the way.
These sequences, marked by graceful camerawork from Leo Hinstin (No Escape) that stays pinned to each character in the way Gus Van Sant tracked his killers and victims in Elephant, offer up an array of Parisian sights and sounds, taking us through metros, office towers, government buildings and pedestrian-filled sidewalks. Bonello creates tension here with few words and plenty of movement, showcasing his directorial chops in a realistic buildup that ends about an hour into the movie when everything goes boom.
Switching gears for the second half, he has his cast holed up overnight in a Paris department store (shot at the now-defunct La Samiritaine, which Leos Carax used for a memorable sequence in Holy Motors). There, an accomplice working as a security guard (Rabah Nait Oufella) gives them free rein to lounge about until the coast is clear — an idea that seems like the worst escape plan ever, actually, although the film at this point is less concerned with logistics than with chronicling the inevitable downfall of its band of outsiders.
It’s also at this point that many viewers may tune out, because Bonello lingers around the location for a long time (the film clocks in at over two hours) without much more plot development, attempting instead to reveal how these potential anti-capitalists react when they find themselves in the heart of consumer society. (One telling scene has Yacine meeting his doppelganger in the form of a mannequin decked out in full Nike gear.)
This part will likely turn off anyone hoping to drudge up sympathy for the film’s young radicals, whose motives remain mostly unclear and, given today’s realities, frankly somewhat abject. At the same time, Bonello uses these late sequences to showcase a certain juvenile fragility among the group, particularly in a series of musical numbers where they dance and lip-sync to tracks by Blondie, Frank Sinatra (a cover of “My Way” by Paul Anka, who wrote the song’s English-language lyrics) and Chicago gangsta rapper Chief Keef (the trippy hardcore jam “I Don’t Like”).
What the director is ultimately getting at remains fairly enigmatic until the end, with a conclusion that provides a somber catharsis for all parties involved. As a portrait of French youth ridden by angst and anger toward the powers that be — something that rings true with the current Nuit Debout (Up All Night) protest movement in Paris — Nocturama makes an intriguingly cinematic case for showing over telling. But as a depiction of how, and why, terrorists (or anarchists or whatever they are) can take down a city, it falls apart in the face of what happens in the real world.
Production companies: Rectangle Productions, Wild Bunch, Pandora Film Produktion, Scope Pictures, Arte France Cinema, My New Picture
Cast: Finnegan Oldfield, Vincent Rottiers, Hamza Meziani, Manal Issa, Martin Guyot
Director-screenwriter: Bertrand Bonello
Producers: Edouard Weil, Alice Girard
Director of photography: Leo Hinstin
Production designer: Katia Wyszkop
Costume designer: Sonia Philouze
Editor: Fabrice Rouaud
Composer: Bertrand Bonello
Casting director: Christel Baras
Sales: Wild Bunch
Not rated, 130 minutes