There is a point in the fact that the script for Nocturama, a Bertrand Bonello’s study of a seemingly unmotivated youth terrorist attack in Paris, was written some five years ago, before Charlie Hebdo and Batlacan events. There is even some kind of “nouvelle vague” quality implied by how it works in sync with contemporary France. For years if not decades, there was a strange feeling of impending violence and doom in the air. The society was and still is frozen in its old ways, the new generations are either in the state of political apathy or heavily radicalized by nationalist, religious or anarchistic ideas. The cars were burning in the Banlieu (the suburbs of Paris) almost every year since the 90’s and nobody asked why. The things needed to change, and the change is usually for the worse.
Before revealing it all in the cathartic ending of the film, Bonello is also more interested in “how” than he is in “why”. In the first half, we see youngsters doing seemingly mundane stuff during the day, riding the metro, picking up some stuff, checking into a hotel room or having a job interview in the Ministry of Interior building. Only the time, periodically given on the screen, gives us a sense of urgency and a thought that their actions might be connected.
There is no internal communication in a standard way of phone calls and text messages, but everything is masterfully co-ordinated. The targets are not at all random: a Ministry building, an empty floor of a skyscraper in the business district, several cars and a statue of Joan of Arc that burns evoking the ordeal of the aforementioned saint. On top of that, a bigshot banker gets the bullet in his home. The motivation behind the attacks remains unclear, since there is only one conversation on the topic, in a flashback scene, for that matter, and the bottom line is that our “perfect” democracy, like any other civilization, has a built-in mechanism of self-destruction by producing enemies and being defined by them.
Once the attacks are carried, the group gets together in a department store one of members works at as a security guard. The idea is to hole up there until the air clears sometime tomorrow. Needless to say, the plan is utterly stupid, they stood a better chance everyone for themselves in the street. So, spoiler ahead, there will be no tomorrow for them, and they kinda know it since they are more interested in partying and music than in news showing the consequences of their deeds.
But at least we have some time to meet them and try to figure out why such diverse gallery of young people just did something unthinkable. Two of the guys are missing already, one of them being the “brains” behind the operation. The rest of the crew played by young French actors known from the festival circuit is too unique to try to put them under one label. Some are white, some are of North African descent. Only one of them is a disillusioned member of the upper classes, while the others are either middle-class or straight from the poverty row. Only one of them is religious, while the others are not. No one is especially political. Some are scared, the others are trying to play it cool. The place they are hiding is something they fought against, but also a place of their fascination.
Most of the critics will draw parallels with Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (thematically, since the style is different, with quick cuts and repeating the key moments of violence in quick succession from different angles) with obvious clues from Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. The references won’t stop just yet, since there is a drop or two of French comedy of manners a la Jacques Taty, “student movies” like Assayas’ Something in the Air, and the department store is the very place of the Kylie Minogue sequence in Leos Carax’ Holly Motors.
But with all the music clues, this portrait of desperate youth would be a perfect European companion piece to Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, which is in its poetic documentarism still a better film than Nocturama. The problem is that Bonello wants to show the understanding for his subjects and their deeds and, at the same time, to remain objective towards them. It is a noble effort, but pointless because of the simple fact that in that way he made terrorism look cool, and beyond that, like a justifiable, sometimes the only method of stating the dissatisfaction with society.