Nocturama. 2017. Directed & Written by Bertrand Bonello.
Starring Finnegan Oldfield, Vincent Rottiers, Hamza Meziani, Manal Issa, Martin Petit-Guyot, Jamil Mc Craven, Rabah Nait Oufella, & Laure Valentinelli.
Rectangle Productions/Wild Bunch/Pandora Filmproduktion
Not Rated. 130 minutes.
Not that anything else should be expected of Bertrand Bonello, but my anticipation for Nocturama didn’t include believing this film would be as dangerous as it is, and I mean that in a positive sense. What I expected was a difficult look at the idea of terrorism. The reason Bonello’s film is what I’d call dangerous is due to the fact he asks all the questions, then opts not to provide the answers. Being a fan of filmmakers like David Lynch particularly, films I love don’t need to provide satisfaction, relief, answers. So long as the examination of the subject is thorough.
When a group of multiracial radicals decide on blowing up several buildings across Paris, they spend the aftermath in a mall. There, they waste away time until the chaos blows over, or the inevitable happens. In that time the viewer takes a peek at the minds behind such a horrible act.
An important part of Nocturama is that Bonello foolishly avoids a particular ideology or religion or anything like that. Because even if we look at people from America or Canada who’ve defected and supposedly gone to fight for groups like ISIS, there’s one major element distinguishing all terrorists: emptiness. Regardless of what it is with which they attempt filling the hole inside, it’s always emptiness at the core of their violence. And this is, above all, the goal of the film, to show the lack of soul in the violence, not in any specific set of beliefs.
Very dark satire here is what drives the film, the ultimate ironies of the terrorist group themselves as people. Once they’re driven inside the mall to wait out the madness on the streets post-explosions, the group spend their time wandering, wasting time. Just like in Dawn of the Dead where George A. Romero used the shopping mall as a symbol of consumerism, so does Bonello use the Parisian mall. It is a shining beacon of capitalism, materialism, it is the epicentre of the capitalist society, effectively.
What’s interesting is how we’re never really given a full sprawl on the beliefs of this group. They’re made out to be mostly vapid, young, vaguely ideological people who regurgitate the revolutionary texts of those who came before them while holding no actual ideology or significant thought of their own. They want to rebel against society, then they spend the aftermath of their attack in the most societal space of all. They’re so intent on igniting a revolution, then there’s no follow up: just hide in the mall, after that when it’s clear they go home. There are a ton of ironies, such as the urgency of their ideas going into action and then the lackadaisical way in which they roam the mall watching the explosions on TV. All a way of Bonello illustrating the senseless of terrorist acts.
A striking part of Nocturama is the imagery, from an early Joan of Arc statue in flames to the various shots of mannequins throughout the shopping mall. There are many instances where these show us the facelessness of terrorism, as well as the juxtaposed concepts of revolution and capitalism – like one character in his Nike shirt and his jeans looking the exact replica of a faceless store mannequin. These would-be revolutionaries are like those mannequins, without face and without identity.
Perhaps the best visual comparison of imagery comes in the form of guns. We see a toy gun, one of the group is fooling around with it. After that, another shot shows us one of their real guns. This contrast is good enough. Bonello goes a step further, he goes from the toy gun to a cut taking us across the mall floor where actual gunned down corpses are littered in a gorgeously macabre spectacle.
My favourite image is a scene in an apartment where the group is together, before their attack begins. Everybody gradually starts dancing. Together, yet all initially disconnected, scattered and separated even though they’re all dancing in the same. This mimics a disconnect from any real ideals; sure, they’re a group, but against what are they rebelling, what is their purpose? They’re a piecemeal patchwork of different philosophies and ideas though guided by none.
Bonello’s terrorists are young, idealistic, they want change, however, they’ve got no manifesto, they’ve got no demands, they’re not seeking to replace capitalism with another economic system altogether. They want change and believe blowing everything up is the best way to start. They are simply burning down the world around them. These revolutionaries, igniting explosions across Paris, are the same people listening to generic pop music, watching news coverage of their crimes on expensive TV sets and fascinated by actually seeing the bombs go off – more disconnection from the real world, they aren’t even seeing their bombs go off in person. These are the same group changing out their street clothes for fancy new clothing, they play with fake guns and real ones, too. Their existence is confused.
Ultimately, Nocturama is a response to people wanting films that explain terrorism, that explain the monstrous parts of human nature. Problem is, sometimes there are no explanations. Bonello asks the questions, providing no answers because there aren’t any answers. There is no neat package in which we can tie up the terrorists, wrapped in a bow. They are conflicted, flawed, horrible people, but they’re not specimens, we cannot dissect them. At the heart of their actions is violence, and no violence has a true answer, it is only plagued by questions. Even considering the dangerous aspects of Nocturama, its honesty in the face of tough questions – and this film comes around at a hell of a time – is what makes it such a compelling work of art. Others see a pointless endeavour. I see Bonello illuminating us on the pointlessness of the endeavour of trying to understand terrorist thinking: any ideology resulting in death has no point.