There’s never been a movie about terrorism quite like “Nocturama.”
Fresh off his emotionally extravagant biopic of fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, director Bertrand 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 weaponized radicalism that has almost no resemblance to terrorism as we know it, and yet sometimes feels all more accurate because of that. Beguiling from the start and oblique until the bitter end, “Nocturama” is such an essential, illuminating movie about modern terrorism precisely because it refuses to offer any solutions to its carnage, or even explicitly diagnose the problems that give rise to it.
Conceived more than five years ago and shot before the devastating terror attacks that swept through Paris in November of 2015, this hypnotic portrait of youth in revolt is less interested in symptoms than causes, less interested in the form that terrorism takes than the cycle of decadence and decline that fertilizes the ground for violence. The film concerns an ethnically diverse group of photogenic Parisian teens who are introduced in the process of carrying out an uncertain attack on the French capital, and the dream-like narrative never provides any ideological pretense for its young cast of characters, nor bothers to establish what they might be hoping to accomplish as a result of their actions.
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The excellent cast (led by “Bang Gang” star Finnegan Oldfield and intense newcomer Laure Valentinelli) is an ethnically diverse hodgepodge that’s designed to dispel any assumptions you might be tempted to make about who these characters are or why they’re acting out. “We did what we had to do” is as much as these kids are willing to share, but if their convictions remain unclear, their commitment to them is disquietingly undeniable. However counterintuitive it may sound, the film’s opacity is the very thing that makes it such a lucid reflection of the world we live in, a place where horror is only as effective as the hopelessness it leaves in its wake.
This exclusive clip from the second half of the film finds the teenage terrorists holed up in a ritzy shopping mall during the hours after their attack (a “nocturama” is the area of a zoo where the animals are caged at night). Paris is on high alert, and France’s most wanted are waiting for the smoke to blow over so they can make their escape.
Spending the evening in one of the city’s most prominent cathedrals of capitalism (Francophiles might recognize the gilded interiors of La Samaritaine as the backdrop of Kylie Minogue’s musical number in “Holy Motors”), the young fugitives are quickly seduced by the pleasures of a place that represents everything about the society that they’ve just tried to dismantle. As Bonello’s languid camera follows each of them through the various stores, toying with fake guns and rifling through clothes they could never afford, their blissed out suicidal fervor begins to assume a fascinating new dimension.
“Nocturama” is opening via Grasshopper Film on August 11 at The Film Society of Lincoln Center & The Metrograph, and will expand around the country from there. The Film Society is also hosting a program called “Deeper into ‘Nocturama’” from August 18 – 24, featuring films selected by Bonello that inspired the film. Check out the poster for the movie below: