Starring Laure Valentinelli. In French, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable
A group of youths, their ethnicity and gender mixed, move with silent purpose through the streets of Paris. For the first half of Bertrand (Saint Laurent) Bonello’s transfixing anatomy of a multiple bombing—significantly, it’s eventually deemed an act committed by “enemies of the state”, not terrorists—Nocturama unfolds like a Jean-Pierre Melville thriller gone techno, with an accretion of enigmatic details, elastic time lines, and an expertly wrought sense of dread.
By the time these opaque but not unsympathetic kids converge at a high-end mall, holing up through the night and enjoying free access to all its luxury items while Paris burns outside, we find ourselves inside an entirely different and equally fascinating kind of film.
As they watch a news report about their actions on a wall of TVs, it takes mere seconds for conversation to turn to the killer sound quality of Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair” pumping out of next door’s audio department. If this is a critique of the deadening effects of late-stage capitalism, then Nocturama is audaciously on the nose. All the better to throw any political motivation for the act into sharper relief, of which there seems to be precisely none. These bombers are driven by something like an industrious form of nihilism, scantily couched in some pretty watery ideology. Sarah (Laure Valentinelli) appears to be a half-assed leftist; class-privileged André (Martin Petit-Guyot) thinks the end of civilization is “cool”; cross-dressing presumed Muslim Yacine (Hamza Meziani) doesn’t expect to go to heaven.
Gus Van Sant’s devoutly nonjudgmental high-school-shooting film Elephant (2003) is a clear touchstone, and Bonello obviously aspires to the same kind of flat affect. But these are very different times, and this (much better) movie arrives on the heels of the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan theatre massacres, with all the confused binaries that came with those events. While we’re busy trying to figure out the mysterious force behind Bonello’s crazy, mixed-up radicals, state violence and the discarding of due process go unquestioned. Testing the viewer’s position on who or what the victims are here is partly what makes Nocturama such a horribly exhilarating and rewarding piece of cinema.