What makes Bertrand Bonello’s film Nocturama controversial is not that it is about terrorism. The acts of political violence that the film shows — a coordinated attack on three buildings in Paris, along with the symbolic dousing in flames of the bronze statue of Jeanne d’Arc located near the Palais-Royal — are hollow symbols sapped of meaning. We have little insight into why they are happening. As a provocative gesture, the film is more about absence than presence, about mood rather than motivation. Little is said about the particular ideology of the film’s main characters, a group of mostly young Parisians of mixed backgrounds; does one even exist, and does that even matter? This is left unclear, and it’s this abstraction of meaning, the way the film refuses to prescribe an interpretation to the events unfolding, that makes it challenging and, ultimately, rewarding.
There is some hint to what is happening, of course. The first half of the film unravels in a series of tense sequences following the various members of the group as they plan their attacks. Making their way through busy metro stations and down crowded boulevards, the teenagers have everything timed perfectly, using burner phones to coordinate their positions. Bonello tracks their movements in long takes that heighten the drama, even if we can’t place exactly what is happening, and there is very little dialogue to provide a foundation. Almost teasingly, the film cuts from the present tense, dropping small clues via flashbacks — relationships between certain members, how they came to be together, a general anger toward the state that binds them as a group.
The expository flashback moments still bristle with uncertainty. But by enveloping this first section of the film within the genre conventions of the thriller, Bonello is also playing with the idea of identification. You find yourself following the group’s every movement closely, tracking the accumulation of details. There is something alluring about the mathematical precision, a pleasure in watching a series of plans work out accordingly. Motivation is not an issue; you want them to succeed. When the attacks actually occur, their political meaning is stripped of significance, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a sense of release for the viewer. Like a group of conmen succeeding in a heist — like Ocean’s Eleven with greater consequences — we root from them despite the catalysts for their actions.
After the attacks are successful, the forward-driving motion of the film comes to a halt. The group hides out in an opulent department store overnight, where a friend and supporter works as a security guard. Surrounded by the quiet glamour of consumer goods, the group moves through this haunted house of commodification uneasily at first, but is ultimately seduced by its power. It is here that the realism and exactness of the film’s first section begins to transform into something more uncanny. Around the group is a fantastical wonderland: they try on designer clothes, play with expensive children’s toys, and blast music out of high-powered stereo systems; they mimic gangster movies, and perform elaborate karaoke numbers.
But outside the walls of the store, where freedom reigns, is the world they temporarily disrupted. One of the teenagers, who keeps sneaking outside for smoke breaks, eventually decides to go for a little walk and see what is happening in the streets. What he finds is emptiness, as if nothing had happened. A few cars drive past, but for the violence they caused there is little commotion. Did anybody even notice? He eventually comes across a woman on a bicycle who appears almost out of nowhere on an empty street. They share a cigarette, both looking around suspiciously. When he asks her what she thinks about the attacks, she responds: “It had to happen. We knew it would.”
What is being conveyed here is still opaque, but gets closer to what it seems Bonello is trying to achieve with Nocturama. The inevitability of these kinds of events is what brings people together, the feeling of anger and that something, anything, needs to happen. There is always an attempt to ascribe a motive, to place emphasis on the true meaning of political violence when it suddenly erupts in urbanized centers of the Western world. But often it comes from a shared numbness, a feeling that there is no forward movement available, that people need to be pushed into action. Bonello refuses to moralize his story or assign any kind of blame to any of his characters. They are acting in — or maybe reenacting — a performance, like children playing cops and robbers.
The young man’s encounter with the woman on the bike, a specter who arrives in the night, turns out to be the calm before the storm. When members of the group turn on televisions in the the department store, the news channels are broadcasting a live feed of where they are hiding. The authorities are waiting to storm the building, and their idyllic space is about to turn into a horror film. But before the police arrive, a cat suddenly appears as if in warning. An enigmatic symbol beloved by cinema since its inception, the appearance of the crawling feline also reminds of Chris Marker’s oft-repeated line: “A cat is never on the side of power.”
Nocturama screens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, Upper West Side, Manhattan) on March 4 and 5 as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and UniFrance‘s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.