“A kaleidoscopic, unsettling, arresting portrait of a collective psychological and social breakdown.”
by Ken Bakely
DISCLAIMER: Vague spoilers ahead. I stay away from explicit giveaways, but a cursory reading between particular lines of this review is admittedly telling.
The first hour of Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama shows us, with little dialogue and stylized editing, a group of diverse teenagers roaming around Paris. They are engaged in a variety of actions: one is checking into a hotel under an assumed name, another is dressed up as a painter and attending to a statue (really she is soaking it in lighter fluid), and others sneak around buildings, in and out of shadows.
That afternoon, a row of cars explodes on a busy street. Then a conference room in the interior ministry’s building is blown to smithereens. The statue goes up in flames. And on the twenty-ninth floor of a sweeping financial building, a room under renovation is detonated. We know who did this, and through a series of flashbacks, we see the plan come together. They find out about the rare explosives from eastern Europe, obtained through a recent robbery. They devise their schedules, they practice their cover-ups. And then Bonello returns us to the present, where they – seven in total – take cover in a closed-off department store. Several stories high, fully stocked, no people. For the night, it is theirs. What comes in the morning? They don’t know.
And there’s something we don’t know. Bonello never tells us why they have decided to commit these terrorist acts. It’s a risk that pays off in droves. Instead of deciphering a political message, this film allows us to know its characters. They aren’t a monolith, with a single religious or ideological bent, but passionate, desperate individuals. Look at how Nocturama puts all of them in the same place, in this pristine building. They try on different clothes, raid the grocery shelves of fine foods and good wine, and blast music through the sound system all night – choices ranging from Shirley Bassey’s bravado cover of “My Way” to Willow Smith’s grating “Whip My Hair.” A few times, we are told some of their names, but this seems irrelevant: we get to know faces instead, and actions, and reactions.
This is one of the best films of the year. It’s a kaleidoscopic, unsettling, arresting portrait of a collective psychological and social breakdown. Bonello doesn’t say how many people were injured or killed in the attacks, and the character’s don’t want to know. It’s a sign that they are coping with what they have done, that they would rather not face the inevitability that, despite a supposedly pronounced effort, they have irrevocably harmed countless people. Are they angry at a system which has harmed so many to begin with? The government is on a desperate hunt for them all night, overturning every stone and following each lead. For the first time, they are truly noticed. Sooner or later, one girl begins to panic, and believes she’ll die. Is she right? I’ll leave it to you to find out, but when the cracks start forming in their initially jubilant unity, Nocturama implies a sourness to their celebrations, and the indulgences in which they partake. Maybe they have a reason to hate the establishment which they attack, but they also love the designer brands, pop music, and the wild consumerism that fuels their evening.
There’s a point early on in which you know how the movie will end. Bonello does not provide a false sense of security or dread – he picks one and allows it to hang as a constant, overhead light. In doing this, the film does not give away its hand, but makes it an even more powerful play than it would have been otherwise. The kids do not become martyrs, nor do they become heroes that can ride off into the sunset. They exist. They are a fact. What happened is a fact. The action of Nocturama is captured from many different angles: a music cue begins, or a loud sound provides a marker, and we see it from someone observing from far away. Then we see it again, pushed in, and then pushed in even more. We brace ourselves for the final shot – at point blank – and we can’t be passive. Every big moment is forged into our minds.
Back to that appearance of “My Way.” It comes later on into the runtime, and it is more than just a soundtrack choice. One of the characters, a tall, tan-skinned male (Hamza Meziani), puts on heavy makeup and a dark suit, and lip syncs it. His interpretation is drenched in camp, forcing out every syllable through his silent mouth – “And through it all, when there was doubt, I ate it up, and spit it out.” It depicts the chasm between what the characters in Nocturama believe they have done at first, and what becomes of them later. What starts out as serious, composed actions – processional tracking shots throughout the city that morning, as they go about their business and completing their piece of the puzzle – becomes much different by the time the final act comes around.
The last character we see in the film (Ilias Le Doré) delivers one line, over and over again, before we cut to the credits, presented over orange flames. It’s now been hours since the group was at their most powerful. And though to tell you who he says this to, and why he says it, and what happens to him afterwards, would be to spoil the ending, there is no coda from any movie this year more evocative than the two words he utters: “Help me.”
Nocturama does not defend the violence of its characters. All in all, with the exception of the end of the first and third acts, there’s almost none of it in the film. Instead, it asks us why these things happen, and why we react with complacency or sameness. To answer all the questions that we should ask would take hours. But to answer the questions that we find easy to ask – the response that we commonly choose in society is what comes after those two words, and it takes less than a second. This is a thorough journey, presented with all the aesthetic limitations of a music video: kinetic cuts and repeated actions and nameless characters. Yet Bonello provides a message in the intentional frenzies of his approach. By employing these gruelingly limited tactics, he places the burden on us, and our minds are activated.