“We did what we had to do,” argues one of the beautiful terrorist teens in Bertrand Bonello’s “Nocturama,” a vague and intriguingly inert thriller that waits 50 minutes before revealing “what they had to do” and never bothers explaining why they had to do it. It’s hypnotic all the same. Fresh off his emotionally extravagant biopic of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, Bonello has returned with another film about the seductive power of surfaces. With his previous project, he presented that idea as his subject — with this one, he sublimates it directly into his style. The result is a portrait of radical violence that has almost no resemblance to terrorism as we know it, and yet sometimes feels all more accurate because of that.
Bonello might keep the context to a minimum, but you can tell almost immediately that something bad is about to go down in the heart of Paris. We’ve been trained to read the signs, primed by indiscriminate acts of killing and the fear-mongering that inevitably follows in their wake. If we see something, we say something, and so we look for anything.
In the wordlessly tense opening moments of “Nocturama,” the suspicious activity might as well be screaming off the screen. A gaggle of youths (or is it a “murder?”) ride the Metro in silence, exchanging furtive looks and trashing their burner phones whenever they get off the train. A timestamp confirms the urgency of the situation — It’s 2:07pm, and the clock is ticking.
The kids are a hodgepodge, and their faces alone are enough to dispel any assumptions that viewers might be tempted to make about who they are or why they’re acting out. Yes, brothers Yacine (Hamza Meziani) and Samir (Ilias Le Doré) have brown skin and appear to be members of France’s Muslim population, but religion is never brought into the equation. Others, like David (“Bang Gang” star Finnegan Oldfield) and Sarah (cat-like newcomer Laure Valentinelli) are as white as it gets. The team even includes a redhead.
Ideologically, it seems like a deliberate and incomplete muddle, like a puzzle that was packaged without all of its parts. Regardless, it’s hard to look away — Bonello’s camera tracks behind each of the kids as they go about their shady business, emulating “Elephant” as the tactic conjures the same sickening momentum that made Gus Van Sant’s film about homicidal youths so vague and disquieting.
It’s in the film’s second half, after we bear witness to the ultimately low-stakes carnage, that the title begins to make sense. A “nocturama” is the name of the area in a zoo where the animals are caged at night, and Bonello’s delinquent protagonists — for reasons that defy all sense of reason — decide that their best bet is to elude authorities by hiding out in the human equivalent of a place where creates are kept to be idealized and gawked at: a shopping mall. And not just any shopping mall, but the palatial tower of La Samaritaine, which Francophiles might remember as the backdrop of Kylie Minogue’s musical number in “Holy Motors.” It’s there, in this cathedral of the capitalistic society that they were attempting to dismantle only hours before, that the self-made band of outsiders decides to have the night of their lives. If society needs to wake up, these kids are more than happy to be fugitives in its dreams.
Watching “Nocturama” in the late summer of 2016 is a strange experience. On one hand, it’s tempting to give Bonello credit for anticipating the horrors that were soon to visit his homeland, for accurately taking the pulse of a country that was vulnerable to an aggressive form of cancer. He first conceived of the script more than five years ago (and shot it prior to the attacks of November 13th, 2015), when the events depicted in the film were more of an ambiguous threat than a clear and present danger.
On the other hand, it’s equally tempting to find Bonello’s film somewhat quaint and outdated — the reality of what’s happened in Paris so dwarfs the events depicted here that “Nocturama” almost feels nostalgic for a simpler time. “Historically, what’s after decadence?” One of the characters asks themselves. “Decline.” It’s just the kind of thing that a pretentious philosophy student might say in lieu of offering an actual argument, true only in the broadest of strokes.
There’s no doubt the effect is deliberate, the filmmaker eschewing specificity in order to explore the universal feeling that youth must be radical in order to reveal its purpose — you can’t just grow up, you have to be a part of something, even if ending lives is the only way to feel like you’re really living one. Watching Sarah try on fancy clothes or some of the kids drive go-karts around the stores, the sheer banality of what their heaven looks like grows unavoidable. One of the boys dresses in drag and performs a karaoke cover of “My Way,” and it’s impossible to know what his way even looks like; it’s like “Dawn of the Dead” for a generation that’s seen Romero’s movie and only thinks they’ve learned anything from it.
It’s fine that Bonello would rather raise unsettling questions than provide unhelpful answers, but his inquiry often feels every bit as confused as his characters. “Nocturama” is enthralling until the bitter end, but it’s so hard to distill its purpose that you can’t tell if the film is opaque or if it simply offers nothing to see.
“Nocturama” is playing at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.