Bertrand Bonello’s films made prior to 2011’s House of Pleasures may hang in relative obscurity for American audiences, but they nonetheless offer essential evidence for contextualizing the writer-director’s overall concerns as an artist. In 2001’s The Pornographer, a director in the adult film industry feels trapped between his political ideals about sex as a revolutionary act and the lacking market for such a mode of pornography. That Jean-Pierre Léaud, arguably the poster child for the French New Wave, plays the filmmaker inaugurates Bonello’s ongoing determination to interrogate various periods of history through an interpretation of the present.
Characters search for meaning by managing their surroundings in Bonello’s films, an idea that takes on its most sadistic overtones in 2003’s Tiresia, in which Terranova (played by Laurent Lucas) kidnaps a prostitute who, to Terranova’s surprise, is transgender. On War, from 2008, finds the reflexively devised central figure—a filmmaker named Bertrand—struggling to create a meaning for his life after he’s accidentally locked inside a coffin overnight. Such existential questions of orchestrating one’s environment through the control of others reach an apotheosis in Nocturama, in which a group of young people plot and execute a series of terrorist attacks across Paris. Things get fuzzy after the violence; the logic behind their uprising is never absolute, especially as their plan to evade capture involves holing up inside a mall that quickly becomes a pleasure dome of recent fashion trends and popular music.
I spoke with Bonello about the contradictions at the heart of contemporary life in France, the intersection between pop culture and terrorism, and how Dawn of the Dead provides a mirror for the events in Nocturama.
Nocturama unfolds as if in some sort of reference to the jeune cinema français, particularly La Haine, with the time markers appearing on screen and the sense that any moment of calm is ushering in an impending storm of some sort. Was that movement of films, as a kind of diagnosis of present turmoil in France, something you had in mind as you began this project?
To be honest, I didn’t think about that too much. When I started to think about this project five or six years ago I was doing House of Pleasures and I was kind of disconnected from the contemporary world. So, I said to myself that I have to go back to a contemporary subject. My idea, my feeling about the contemporary world, was something that was very present-tense and that it would explode. For me, every revolutionary movement through the ages has always been conducted by young people. Always. For example, there’s a book from the 16th century by Étienne de La Boétie called Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, which is a very important book for us French people about politics and freedom. It was written by a 20-year-old. But I also thought about punk music, and how it was a movement through young people. I needed the youth to have this kind of movement and energy and decision.
I’m reminded of On War, when Mathieu Amalric’s character declares that he wants to be dazed by life. In most of your films, that comprises the core struggle. There are characters who want to feel something intense, but often they find out they aren’t sure how to attain, let alone sustain that. Where does that come from, you wanting to make films about such people?
I think it comes from my fear. It’s my fear that I will be disconnected from that feeling, or that I will follow the movements but without feeling alive. But I have to say, for me, I was born in 1968, so I’m really like the son of this revolutionary movement. I saw the result of that period as a child, but for me and my generation, it’s generally very different. It might even be a kind of nostalgia for something that I didn’t live. And it has influenced me.
To follow the movements without being alive—that could be an apt summary of the characters here, and how you seem to be commenting on the ways people, typically thought of as subjects, can be made into objects. I’m thinking of the scene with Yacine, where he encounters a mannequin wearing the same outfit as him, as the epitome of this possibility.
For me, this shot comes twice. The first time it’s an image of consumerism. It’s just Yacine wearing the clothes. The second time, with the mannequin, it’s an image of death. With the second image, you disappear. When I see the film, and this shot, I can only think that this guy is dead already.
That sense of already being dead, though, has to come from Yacine’s inability to realize the implications of his acts, both as a consumer and, subsequently, as a terrorist. Your characters seem to have this problem often: to be unable to anticipate the threats that await them.
If I had made the film 40 years ago, or if the film was taking place in the ’70s, I wouldn’t have created the same characters. In Nocturama, for example, once everything explodes, the characters are totally lost. They have nothing to say, nothing to do, and they don’t have any kind of discourse. They don’t have an ideology. What I wanted to do through these characters is mix a kind of sense of the conscious and unconsciousness. They don’t realize everything. I’m very interested in this state of mind, because it’s something that I can see around me. It’s something very contemporary.
They don’t see everything, but they do feel something. Their interest in pop culture, in sound systems and music videos, is in fact their ideology. So is it that politics has become disconnected from art, full stop, or that there’s a new mix of pleasure and ideology that’s more complicated than that?
It becomes very complicated. For example, four years ago it was very clear. You see all of these German terrorists, they are 20 years old, and they have really pure ideas. Ideas about whether to accept or reject certain things. You can agree or disagree, but what they say is clear. But today, it’s not that clear. I wanted to show that there is an ambiguity. And the film is quite ambiguous in many ways. The second part, for example, is a contrast to the first part. In the contemporary world, it seems likely that you could meet a young person just as fascinated by terrorism as consumerism. That’s quite new, I think.
I think so too, especially when the two are flattened and falsely made into equivalents, or seen as comparable acts. That’s what so terrifying about the film’s ambiguity: It almost seems as though the group of young people treats the terrorist act like an act of creation, even an artistic act.
I would say so, but I’m not so sure that the characters are aware of that.
Right. Though I think it varies between the members of the group too.
Yes, they’re 10 people and they come from different backgrounds. But basically, they’re interested in the act and not in what’s happening after.
How much thought did you give to the specific music choices in the film, like Willow Smith and Chief Keef? Were these choices you made at the script level or did you draw on the interests of your actors as well?
Everything was in the script. Even the clothes they wear. It’s very precise, almost mathematical. All of the camera movements, the relationship of time, the music. Even if I’m not 20 anymore, it’s how I think of stuff. So there’s a specific meaning for every song, for example. It means something to me.
It’s the “clean version” of Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like” that Omar plays in the mall, which struck me as perhaps an instance of this strange catering of explicit content to youths or even children that’s also somewhat of a new phenomenon. Why did you go with this version instead of the uncut one?
No, when we got the rights to the song, it was the master they sent us. So it was not my choice. But you know, in hip-hop, it can be a difficult question, of getting rights. Often there are something like three producers and they have problems between them. It’s always complicated [laughs].
It’s almost fitting, that kind of confusion over property ownership and public space, because I feel like what you’ve constructed with Nocturama is an unofficial update of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, where the consumers, or the zombies, have become the protagonists.
Romero’s film was a major influence on this. I was very sad to hear of his death. That was one of my favorite films when I was a teenager. But yes, my film is exactly the opposite. It’s like a mirror. I also thought of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. But it was later on that I realized they were not only cool horror movies, but also very political. I didn’t get that the first time.
And finding that transition, between genre and politics, becomes what makes the ending of Nocturama so wrenching. These protagonists are, of course, not zombies, so whereas the violence in Romero might invite the audience to relish it on some level, you’re shifting the terrain to deny that totally here.
I think the question of beginnings and endings has been very important to my recent films. House of Pleasures, Saint Laurent, and this one, I realized afterward that they have all been about the ending of an era. House of Pleasures was the ending of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Saint Laurent was about the transition from the ’70s to the ’80s, which is a major turning point. And here, it’s the end of something, but we don’t know what’s going to be the beginning after. I don’t have the answer, and I don’t want to be too pessimistic, but I don’t see so much light ahead.