There’s a scene towards the end of Bertrand Bonello’s lush 2011 masterwork House of Pleasures—its emotional apex to be exact—set to the Moody Blues’ 1967 single “Nights in White Satin.” A group of women slow-dance around an elegantly furnished room, embracing each other in grief-stricken repose. The setting, though, is a Parisian bordello circa 1900. That anachronism—which Bonello amplifies by implying that the music comes from within the film—doesn't temper the scene’s emotional tenor. It sharpens it, channelling centuries of grief into a few gorgeously distended, rock-fueled minutes. It's the kind of moment—a dazzling fusion of historical catharsis and pop iconography—so characteristic of the French director’s most recent work.
Though not a household name in the way that some of his French contemporaries are, Bertrand Bonello has slowly moved away from the “New French Extremity” label which he was first associated with (for his 2001 film, The Pornographer) to become a de facto chronicler of, essentially, seismic temporal shifts in Gallic culture. The aforementioned House of Pleasures observed an opium-addled, turn-of-the-century brothel, only to slip, in its staggering final moments, into the present day. Likewise, his quasi-biopic Saint Laurent (2014), though it centered on the fashion icon’s most productive years—from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s—nonetheless eschewed strict linearity, skipping to and fro in its final act. Both films premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, so there was no reason to expect that his latest, Nocturama (now set in the present), would fare differently.
The film’s subject matter, though, presented something of a challenge, particularly in the wake of the Bataclan attacks that shook France in late 2015. Conceived by Bonello in 2011 (but filmed post-Charlie Hebdo), Nocturama is at least nominally concerned with terrorism. After all, its entire first act follows a disparate, multiracial group of Parisian youths as they orchestrate simultaneous attacks across the city, targeting various symbolic landmarks (the Ministry of the Interior, the statue of Joan of Arc, Paris Bourse, and the Tour Total). Understandably, but still regrettably, the film was rejected from Cannes, a less than auspicious start to its truncated festival run. It never made it to VIFF.
The fact is that contingencies reign when it comes to both festival jockeying and actual theatrical distribution. A case like Nocturama only brings attention to the arbitrariness, especially when it becomes clear, while watching the film, that it's not really about terrorism (or at least, not primarily so). Strange as it may seem, there's no professed ideology here, which only makes the group at Nocturama’s core more frighteningly unreadable. It's as if they simply got up one day and collectively decided to act. Not for nothing is the influence of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978) embedded into the film's fabric.
That opacity—or, indeed, absence of motivation and ideology—is what makes Nocturama such a provocative object. Though it clearly incorporates elements of contemporary radicalization, it also dares to stand apart, refusing to criticize or justify. It's content, simply, to embody. Of course, that leaves Bonello open to charges of hypocrisy or hollow aestheticization. But then, those same charges were likely leveled at Alan Clarke's 1989 made-for-TV "Elephant"—a 40-minute tour de force of violent, radically de-contextualized gesture—which Bonello cites as a major influence on Nocturama. (He even rented a theater to show the Clarke’s film to the entire cast and crew before shooting.) The conceit is frighteningly simple: with calm regularity and in a series of fluid tracking shots, the camera captures eighteen grisly murders. There's no motivation, no character, only pure, physical action. Building on a similar ambiguity, Nocturama’s propulsive first hour snakes through the streets of Paris. Split-screens divide up the frame into concurrent blocks of action; time doubles back on itself, circular and disorienting. The entire movement—and it truly is symphonic—is genre action at its most elemental, which is to say not really “genre” at all.
If Nocturama’s first half pares its action down to minimalist abstraction, its second slips fully into pure genre pleasure, clearly referencing American cult items of the 1970s and 1980s—the aforementioned Romero touchstone, but also films like John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Thom Eberhardt’s Night of the Comet (1984). In the aftermath of the attack, the group rendezvous as planned, at a multi-level luxury department store in the heart of Paris. Walled away from the chaos of the city—which feels appropriately post-apocalyptic—they can do nothing but wait out the night.
In that second hour, the department store, that ubiquitous symbol of capitalist excess, transforms into a stage of possibility. Shooting over six weeks in La Samaritaine (an unused eight-story building memorably captured in Leos Carax's Holy Motors ), Bonello and his set designer, Katia Wyszkop, arranged close to two hundred brand names of luxury goods in what amounts to a cloistered menagerie of consumerism (less department store than museum). Holed up for the night, the members of the group spread out through this space, trying on clothes and make-up, riding massive toy cars Shining-style, lounging around on plush furniture, blasting music. There's Chief Keef alongside Blondie, John Barry’s ominous theme from The Persuaders next to a dazzling lip-synced performance of Shirley Bassey’s “My Way.” In one of the most jarring, instantly iconic music cues in recent memory, Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair” blares on while the group first glimpse the results of their actions on a news channel. “She was only ten when she sang this,” says one. "Who cares?" replies another. "Check out the sound." Without the limitations of capital—the physical body in House of Pleasures, its material extensions in Saint Laurent—choice becomes the sole concern. History, fashion, the flotsam and jetsam of popular culture—all become fused into a totalizing media space from which each person takes whatever he or she desires, and only that.
What this section resembles, in some ways, is the title of Bonello's other 2016 release, "Sarah Winchester, Ghost Opera" (which played the DOXA film festival earlier this year): a 24-minute short about a present-day Parisian opera production and the real-life story it tells, concerning the ill-fated heiress of the famed 19th century rifle company. ‘Ghost Opera’—it’s a phrase that describes not just the group’s nocturnal wanderings in Nocturama, but also Bonello's recurring attempt to exorcise tragedy through the materials of a (popular) artistic medium. The impulse isn’t new. It’s present in Clarke’s "Elephant", which was based on actual events and police reports in Northern Ireland at the time. It’s likely there in the films that followed: Gus Van Sant’s Palme d’Or-winning film of the same name about the 1999 Columbine massacre, or Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique, about the Montreal Massacre of 1989. Indeed, it’s the very subject of Antonio Campos’ indelible debut feature Afterschool, about a teenager who inadvertently films the drug-related deaths of two schoolmates, then proceeds to make a memorial video for them. But rarely has that impulse to work through a collective tragedy been realized with the audacity that Bonello brings to Nocturama, in which the space of the present—its institutions, media, political ideologies, popular discourse, etc.—is complete, total and final, and in which any attempt to push beyond leads only to disaster.
“It’s weird doing nothing,” one of the group says when they first arrive at the department store building. Before the final reckoning comes—and there's no doubt that it will—the only choice is to wait for dawn to break, or else burn brightly, quickly enough that it no longer matters. To borrow what film critic Mike D'Angelo wrote about Antonio Campos’ Afterschool in 2008: “This is how we live.”
Nocturama opens at the Vancity Theatre on Friday (August 18)