Nocturama (2016)

Written and directed by Bertrand Bonello

There are a lot of reasons to be upset with the world. Companies wring the planet dry in the name of value generation, politicians protect them, and an ever-growing majority of people toil into oblivion as more and more of society’s resources are presided over by a privileged few. Worst of all, how are things to change when the scales of power tilt ever-more in favour of those few have-alls?

It’s this soul sucking disillusionment that brings together a cross-section of Paris’ youth, who together lash out at the unfeeling machine they feel threatens to grind them all into dust. To stake their claim on life, they terrorize their city by blowing up cars, buildings and a statue at different points in the city, plunging it into chaos, before hiding out for the night in a department store.

Bonello shoots their operation with economy and steely tension, guiding the action like a conductor with a knife between his teeth, precise and resolute. Criss-crossing between them as they take the subway, drive cars, drop phones into garbage cans and skulk in empty offices, you can’t help but feel unnerved by it all, even if you don’t know what their game is at the outset – such is the sinister quality of young people, some looking as young as 15, moving about with unusual purpose and stone-faced demeanours. It’s unsettling, both the terror they commit, but also the knowledge that there’s something out there that can drive not one, not two, but several young people to believe personified protest won’t do and anonymized attack is the only option.

In the shock and awe of the film’s violent centerpiece, as its characters lock themselves in for the night, the driven, calculated action is replaced by an eerie surreal energy as the characters remain fixed in state within the department store’s soundproofed walls while all hell presumably is breaking loose outside. Here, Bonello lets them stew, together and apart, in the realization of what they’ve done. Stopping the nervous momentum of its opening act, Nocturama morphs into a single-location play where its characters try to make sense of their actions, their future and the world they’ve left outside. Giddiness, exhaustion, fear and elation sends them scurrying through the aisles and displays of upscale merchandise they could never afford.

Bonello’s corps of actors all rise to the occasion of believably portraying late teen/twentysomethings who carry out acts of terror with supreme professionalism one moment, and piss their pants in stunned fear the next. The dichotomy is powerful, because our media-fed idea of terrorists don’t align with that of Nocturama, where the face of fearsome violence has full, rosy cheeks, flowing hair and eyes that still retain a youthful sparkle. Their bodies are soft underneath their armour of anti-establishment cynicism, and so, so vulnerable, these agents of destruction who halted a country for a day; to watch them is devastating, because it forces you wonder how they can do the things to do and why they feel compelled to do so. You’re left thinking that what’s at stake here is not the future of these young people, but the very soul of the generation they represent. 

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