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The Beautiful, Unsettling Provocations of ‘Nocturama’

Director Bertrand Bonello’s new thriller is a skillful reconfiguration of French art house and horror—and it’s a movie that might have you walking out of the theater in anger  

Grasshopper Film

In French director Bertrand Bonello’s startling new thriller, Nocturama, a group of young Parisian terrorists seeks refuge in a massive department store that’s been locked down for the night. After slipping through the back door with the help of a sympathetic security guard, they split up and stake out positions amid the various designer-fashion displays, waiting for sunrise and the possibility of escape. Over in the electronics section, flat-screen televisions broadcast breathless reports about the group’s carefully coordinated—and eventually lethal—bombing campaign, but the kids are interested in a more joyful noise. With a couple of clicks on an iPhone, the images of burning buildings and cars are soundtracked by Willow Smith hiccuping her way through “Whip My Hair”: “And we ain’t doin’ nothin’ wrong / So don’t tell me nothin’.”

The juxtaposition of political violence and mindless teen pop is undoubtedly meant as a provocation, and it works: I’ve gotten into more arguments about Nocturama than any other new movie this year. They started immediately after a late-night screening last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival. The screening there began with walkouts—triggered by the spare, minimalist rhythm of the opening scenes, which show the collective as it moves through the city planting explosives, and unfold largely without dialogue—and culminated with audience screams during several shocking acts of violence near the film’s climax. When the house lights came on, they were accompanied by the grumbling of audience members—the ones who hadn’t already beaten a hasty retreat from the theater—that what we had just seen was “awful” and “phony,” “not a movie,” and “an insult to our intelligence.”

That last one, by the way, was uttered by me, standing in a circle of friends and colleagues, most of whom did not agree. In truth, I don’t agree with myself anymore, either. As an in-the-moment viewing experience, Nocturama is a gut punch wrapped in a velvet glove; it’s so intensely visceral and visually impressive that it short-circuits interpretation. It all but dares you to dismiss it as a gorgeous stunt—an exploitation of terrorist imagery that’s especially sensitive in a contemporary French context. (The film started filming after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in 2015.) But in retrospect, Bonello’s film is like one of those bullets that expands after it has penetrated its target, growing larger and sinking in more deeply until there’s no digging it out. The film is an exercise in style, yes, but its aesthetics are weaponized. This is armor-piercing cinema, and its target is any viewer who believes that he or she has seen it all before.

It’s not that Nocturama has no precedents. What’s remarkable is how skillfully it reconfigures them. The first half of the film knowingly evokes French master Robert Bresson’s 1977 drama, The Devil, Probably, about a coterie of disaffected students whose pessimism about their country’s political direction has left them in a state of agitated alienation. In that measured, chilly masterpiece, the protagonist turns his destructive impulses inward—the film continues Bresson’s obsession with the psychology of suicide. By contrast, Bonello’s radicals—a photogenic and ethnically diverse group led by lovers David (Finnegan Oldfield) and Sarah (Laure Valentinelli)—act out. Their motivations are opaque (the script intentionally withholds explanations) but their tactics are precise, designed to lay waste to symbols of Gallic economic and cultural power. In one stunning image, the camera zeroes in on a bronze statue of Joan of Arc that’s been set ablaze, her expression blank beneath the sweltering orange flames.

By time the kids are holed up in the shopping mall, the film’s reference points have shifted, from French art-house heroes to some American masters of horror: Stanley Kubrick, John Carpenter, and especially George A. Romero, whose Dawn of the Dead is something like a spiritual prequel. In that film, Romero dropped sly social science by pitting a band of survivors against zombie hordes in a deserted shopping mall. The contrast between two kinds of consumption—material and flesh-eating—was stark and hilarious. Bonello uses his setting in a similar way—but with a more refined ratio of subtext to gore.

On paper, the irony of young, antiestablishment types entranced by their sudden access to high-end goods is somewhat thick—The Devil Wears Prada, Probably. On-screen, it’s mesmerizing. It’s not a surprise that a director whose last effort was a biopic of Yves Saint Laurent would be a compelling stylist, but none of Bonello’s previous films — even the gorgeous 2011 drama House of Tolerance, set in a luxurious brothel at the turn of the century — boast this level of exquisite craft.

The camera doesn’t simply observe the action, but stalks stealthily from place to place as the characters explore their new habitat. The same characters who came off as sullen, silent ciphers in the opening scenes are transformed into vivid icons of bright, childish innocence—the mall is their playground.

Spread out across several floors connected by a network of gleaming escalators, the characters dress up (one in a golden, Eyes Wide Shut–style mask), hook up, sample the merchandise, check social media (“we should have blown up Facebook,” one grumbles, a grim double entendre), bump Top 40 hip-hop (including Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like,” granted the punishing, abject grandeur it deserves), and, as things start to get existential, confront the specters of their own expendability around every corner. An encounter between one of the boys and a mannequin kitted out in identical Nike threads has an unsettling poetry, rammed home by the unspoken connection between his dangerous revolutionary ardor and craven corporate sloganeering in front of him: “Just Do It.”

Even as he sets up the department store as a sort of surreal enchanted refuge—a Never-Never Land insulating the lost boys and girls from the consequences of their actions—Bonello makes it clear that the kids are anything but safe. Reality intrudes with a vengeance in the form of a SWAT team tasked with taking the suspects down by any means necessary. The squad’s cold, clinical maneuvers through darkened hallways have a nightmarish inevitability; they’re at once mirror images of the young terrorists and monstrous, masked abstractions whose presence plays up the protagonists’ comparatively amateur, adolescent vulnerability. How one reads the outcome of this brutal, painfully drawn-out sequence—whether as a critique of state power or a cautionary parable about the merciless consequences of ideology in action—is a sort of Rorschach test. And so is Bonello’s movie: Its darkness is beautiful to gaze into and difficult to see clearly.