It was bound to happen.
What if a devastating act of violence was committed without purpose? Does it still have meaning? The answer of course is “yes” since such an attack leaves victims whether dead or psychologically scarred. Consequences reverberate well past borders of the town, country, and continent in which they occur because of the inherent fear they conjure. We wonder who will be next, dread the realization it could be us, and let paranoia seep into our very soul. This is why it’s called terrorism. It disrupts the way we live. It terrorizes our every waking minute to know we live in a world where it could happen at any time. And sometimes an inevitable declaration of ownership provides clarity, perhaps comfort. Without cause, the result is rendered even scarier.
I want to believe Bertrand Bonello is tapping into this notion with his latest film Nocturama and he may have succeeded had he filmed it from the vantage point of the innocent bystanders. For some reason, however, the writer/director tells this tale of carnage from the eyes of its perpetrators instead. He lets us see who has their fingers on the trigger and thus negates any fear of the unknown we might otherwise possess. He willfully refuses to say why they’re doing what they’re doing too, but that decision only supplies tension for the anonymous characters caught dumbfounded in the streets without a clue as to what’s happening. We experience no additional tension because the attackers being kids, Muslims, white supremacists, or PETA is meaningless to their plight.
That’s what Bonello puts onscreen: their plight. We watch this sprawling “gang” of young multi-racial French radicals from the point of execution to their hideout (flashbacks to the planning arriving in-between). Does this mean we’re to sympathize with them? We’d need to know what they’re doing it all for if so. Should we tell ourselves that terrorism is always as empty as the events occurring here onscreen? Doing that minimizes the pain and suffering those impacted by such nightmarish scenarios feel regardless. Maybe we’re actually meant to cheer on their demise. They do constantly go against everything they’ve agreed will keep them off the police’s radar. I could therefore posit Bonello wants us to manifest a bloodlust for their capture rather than desire an end wherein they’re free.
I ask these questions because I honestly don’t know. What is Nocturama‘s purpose beyond providing a stylish adventure of co-eds wreaking havoc? Why should we care about these characters when I can only remember two names without looking at IMDB because they’re the two everyone talks about after discovering their untimely absence? What is Bonello’s true intent? Please let me in on the secret if you know because all I saw were the half-baked actions of disgruntled youths performing heinous acts for no other reason than to prove to themselves they had the cojones. All I saw were spoiled sociopaths devoid of human decency who weren’t prepared for the worst-case scenario comeuppance awaiting them. I watched hollow gestures leading towards an even emptier conclusion that taught me nothing.
So I’m going to assume futility is the lesson. No matter the reasons for attacks of this kind (love, religion, race, nationalism, revenge, etc.) the result only leads to more pain—for you and your victims. It’s also a futility as far as the romanticism of revolution. Too often we watch movements led by intellectually persuasive orators with a conviction of principles to rally behind and yet Bonello erases that here. He strips away this group’s manifesto and ensures we see how meaningless it all was. He doesn’t even care about guilt enough to truly let any of them question what they did with more than a superficiality easily brushed aside by another’s words. In a way we’re seeing the true face of monsters, one of vacant naiveté.
I’ll give the filmmaker credit for that one even if he undercuts its revelation with a consistent desire to glorify these kids anyway. The entire first half is shot so that we inch closer to seat’s edge in anticipation of what these carefully laid plans are approaching. Bonello orchestrates what is almost a silent film saying so much with so little, using a spy thriller aesthetic that has us assuming David (Finnegan Oldfield), Sarah (Laure Valentinelli), Mika (Jamil McCraven), Yacine (Hamza Meziani), Samir (Ilias Le Doré), Sabrina (Manal Issa), André (Martin Petit-Guyot), Fred (Robin Goldbronn), and Greg (Vincent Rottiers) are the good guys. And maybe they are—I guess terrorists are always the “good guys” to some party. Perhaps our wanting it to be true is the point.
But I can’t give him full marks because of the second half. It’s here where things fall apart structurally and emotionally. The group meet at their rendezvous point (a closed-for-the-night department store) with one goal: stay under the radar. At every turn, however, they do the exact opposite. It becomes gratingly obnoxious because what was a tightly woven pressure cooker devolves into a laid-back group hang as though these kids didn’t just blow a bunch of stuff up. Bonello leaves us with two results: either they get caught because they’re idiots or they escape unscathed because the world is. I stopped caring which it would be because I just wanted it to go somewhere. Besides a couple flourishes of stir-crazy-induced waking nightmares, though, the waiting is almost laughable.
It’s too bad because there are many things to like whether Act One’s overt nihilistic dramatics, Act Two’s millennial thieving spree of a posh candy store, or effective performances across the board. There’s good humor thanks to Rabah Nait Oufella‘s oblivious security guard Omar, captivating non-linear storytelling, and authentic brutality. Bonello doesn’t give his characters a break. He lets their failures play out because this isn’t a fairy tale rebellion to topple a villainous regime. He knows the price of terrorism in his country and isn’t afraid to make us watch as it gets paid despite those at fault being Parisians rather than foreigners. We’re unfortunately shown this lesson thirty minutes in only to realize it’s the only message Bonello has. Rather than profound, Nocturama is almost forgettable.
courtesy of Grasshopper Film