The ostensibly innocuous first images from Nocturama, tracing various young people as they move throughout Paris on the metro, are given ominous undertones by the soundtrack of dubby disco composed by director Bertrand Bonello. The steady rhythm of the music lends a sense of purpose to the routine of morning travel, purpose borne out in the increasing anxiety visible on the characters’ faces as they intersect with one another and exchange small, recognizing glances, or simply double-check the time on their phones. These fleeting images slowly gather speed as the ensemble separately heads toward a mysterious, shared destination, and the opening act raises tensions so effective that it’s easy to miss how quickly the manipulative music drops out, leaving only the editing to compound the unease.
Eventually, these young people are revealed to be a cabal of radicals planning a series of bombings. Motive is left only slightly explained, sufficiently limned to identify political grievances over religious extremism as the element that links the group’s members. But the film expresses far more interest in the methods of the radicals than their ideology. In particular, Bonello focuses on the way that the group circumvents added hurdles of technological surveillance while still remaining connected through phones. Instead of sending texts that might trigger red flags on automatic monitors, for example, the youth take and send photos of meeting locations, creating collages meaningless to those who don’t know what they signify. But the bombings themselves are clearly symbolic, targeting the Ministry of the Interior, the Paris business district, and a bronze statue of Joan of Arc, the latter of which melts in an eerie reenactment of the martyr’s execution.
After the suspenseful setup of the attack, the pace shifts into a lower gear as the radicals hide out in the abandoned La Samaritaine department store, where luxury boutiques still reside. With the action largely confined to the mall for the remainder of the running time, Nocturama flirts with satire as it regards the characters burning off energy by window shopping through the store. The use of the physical space of the mammoth building, combined with the jabs at the overriding consumerism that even these leftists cannot shake, suggests Jacques Tati by way of Dawn of the Dead.
The implication that today’s youth cannot extricate themselves from the capitalist system they claim to abhor is obvious, and scenes of the terrorists trying on clothes, playing with toys, and even riding a go-kart around a sales floor quickly become repetitive. Nonetheless, the climax, in which police track down the bombers and stage a shoot-first-ask-questions later raid complicates the sardonic commentary. In the brutal response of authority, Bonello offers a mirror image of the young radicals’ own actions.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8–18.