With Nocturama, Bertrand Bonello’s purpose was to address how armed struggle and acts of terrorism could very well become a desperate response to the state of present-day French society. To this effect he quotes as a source of inspiration the Discours de la servitude volontaire, a prominent essay on tyranny written by La Boétie in the 16th century; and since he started working on Nocturama around 2010, it is natural to link his film to one of the numerous offspring of La Boétie’s piece, the anonymous text The Coming Insurrection (L’insurrection qui vient), whose publication in 2007 caused a great deal of reaction and debate. Nocturama depicts the fictional day this insurrection comes, turning statements on paper into real actions hitting the world, in the form of bombs blowing up simultaneously at different locations in Paris. The terrorism of the characters in the movie is driven by political anger and rage (which transcends the differences between the insurgents), not religious fanaticism. Despite this essential distinction, what happened last year in the French capital (the attacks against Charlie Hebdo, the Bataclan and several cafés and restaurants) has for the wrong reasons turned the film into something seemingly toxic, as its exclusion from every selection of the Cannes Film Festival – for the first time in Bonello’s career since his directorial debut back in 1998 – demonstrates.
Nothing in Nocturama relates to the recent terror attacks on Paris. The war led by its characters is the continuation of the one conveyed in David Fincher’s Fight Club at the end of the last century, and still unresolved. This is a war against our consumerist culture, which is the only thing the young people of Nocturama have ever known in their lives. What they are looking for is to strike symbols of this culture (in Fight Club it was the banks; here it is an ensemble of buildings hosting the stock exchange, part of the government, the headquarters of a multinational company), even without a clear idea in mind of what to replace them with. What they are not looking for is to make a target out of the population – the only death in Fight Club was ultimately amongst the insurgents, and things will ultimately go in a similar way in Nocturama. Bonello’s take on the current state of society is that we are beyond the point of no return, in a situation where discussion between people of different convictions is no longer possible. The antagonist views of both sides are far too deep-rooted for that, leaving pure physical action as the only conceivable option first for the young, with their bombs, then for the order they rebel against, whose only response will be to shoot on sight. No words of any kind, claims on one side, warnings on the other, are being spoken anymore. No explanation is given (even to whose mistake it is that gives away the regrouping location of the faction). As a bystander (played by Adèle Haenel) puts it: “It had to happen. It really had to happen.”
Between the terrorist action and the counterterrorist reaction, Nocturama drifts through a fleeting time of ambiguity once the bombing is completed. Its perpetuators regroup in a shopping mall where they intend to spend the night, waiting until dawn to disperse and return to their lives, and at this moment the grit and assurance displayed since the beginning get blurred by ingenuousness and uncertainty. Inside the mall, the complex push/pull bond the characters have developed towards consumerism surfaces and becomes the central matter of the movie. As each member of the group finds him or herself face to face with the reflection returned by the vast and shiny place (models dressed just like them, rooms filled with items they still feel drawn to possess), Nocturama wonders about the prospect of revolution in the age of our reproduction by the shopping malls, and our being torn apart between our conflicted desires for riot and comfort. If even the most radical opponents, like the people portrayed in the film, still have a strong bond towards this insincere way of life, this can only mean that this bond will be all the more painful to sever when the time really comes – as it was already excruciating for the characters in House of Tolerance and Saint Laurent, the last movies from Bertrand Bonello, when they had to pull apart from the dream state they created for themselves to live in, and go back to reality.
Harsh realism is there from the start in Nocturama, in the look of the movie (with a blunt and willfully unaesthetic photography) and its setting (the whereabouts of the characters around Paris are followed in a strictly factual manner). Emotions begin to penetrate this bleak universe – a true war zone – first through music, which has always been one of Bonello’s favorite channels. Working like an alchemist, the director combines the music catalog of the online streaming services, the wireless network access offered by the mall and the cutting-edge audio equipment available for sale there to transform the place into a supreme jukebox, where any existing song can be played, from “My Way” to the “Theme from The Persuaders,” according to the characters’ mood. They listen to the movie soundtrack as if they were in our position, in the theater. Thus the art of Bonello uses products of the materialistic world to create a connection between us and them – something opposite to what these products were designed for. This connection intensifies in the final act, when the raid led by the police on the mall is accompanied by a radicalization in Bonello’s filmmaking. Nocturama gets stripped down to its bare elements, which evoke The Passion of Joan of Arc by Carl Theodor Dreyer: an extreme opposition between two irreconcilable sides, obedience to the law and commitment to one’s principles; and its cinematographic expression in a piercing, almost feverish fashion. In both films the rebellion of youth ends up in flames, with a cry for help that remains disregarded. Crushed, in Nocturama, by the sound of gunshots, which shock us and make us feel the death they are carrying. The youth being put to death by the established power: only time will tell whether Bonello’s vision was of a prophetic nature, or too uncompromising.