Charting the movements of nearly a dozen Parisian youths as they board and exit a series of trains over the span of a few hours, Nocturama’s opening captures these young men and women without a clear sense of their ultimate destination. While this sequence unfolds sans context, as little more than a showcase for Bertrand Bonello’s geometrically precise imagery, the scenes set in a shopping mall later that night lend the preceding actions a retrospective significance, as when Yacine (Hamza Meziani), who’s been wearing a Nike shirt and sneakers all day, happens upon a mannequin wearing the identical outfit. As the night air chills and a calm storm of merciless violence brews nearby, the film solidifies its presentation of a society so consumed by the digital that young people are unable to separate “likes” from radical politics.
After the dust settles from the opening stretch’s breathless onslaught of camera swerves around corners and across platforms, Nocturama leaps back in time to divulge its characters’ plans to commit a series of bombings and shootings across Paris. The mastermind is David (Finnegan Oldfield), who, along with pal Greg (Vincent Rottiers) and girlfriend Sarah (Laure Valentinelli), conceives of the plot as a response to a general discontent with France’s current state of affairs. They seem partially educated about revolutions and their suppression; Greg casually explains to Sarah over coffee the significance of Pinochet’s regime in Chile, as well as the tools used during a silent coup in Greece. From the perspective of these clearly bourgeois minds, whose proximity to violence is by all intents and purposes nil, the prospect of a behind-the-scenes uprising proves particularly attractive.
Bonello likens these fascinations with the music videos of pop and hip-hop tracks that frequently occupy television screens and stereo speakers throughout the film. In his dorm room, David scrolls through pages detailing the Parisian overthrow of Charles X in 1830 and reports his findings to Sarah as she sits on the bed, only half-listening to him as she does some unrelated internet surfing of her own. That technology, and public space’s construction around it, affords the luxury of feeling proximate to political action without actual, empirical knowledge of it proves to be a central, structural irony throughout Nocturama. The successful detonation of bombs, and the subsequent police response to them, is still relayed to the perpetrators solely through the television screens inside the shopping mall, which doubles as the crew’s hideout. By integrating mediated communication into almost every scene, Bonello constructs a clear-eyed sense of how technology keeps getting closer and closer to replacing human consciousness.
In the mall, Bonello executes a series of carefully orchestrated sequences that progressively tease out the ways in which pop culture latches onto the minds of unsuspecting youths. Omar (Rabah Nait Oufella), having recently executed the remaining mall security staff, marvels at the building’s sound system by blasting Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like,” while mouthing the lyrics from memory. Bonello shoots Omar from the side, capturing the young man’s mimicking gestures as evidence of how feeling and sincerity are made interchangeable with fantasy when music videos are a cornerstone of cultural knowledge.
However, Nocturama’s unwavering strength lies in its acknowledgement that no single line of thought or critique can ever explain the range of complexities inherent to a given historical scenario. While the film’s teenage characters prove incapable of envisioning their actions beyond the present moment, Bonello never dips into moralism. A group of police officers, decked out with heavy armor and high-caliber weaponry, remain hidden by shields throughout a final series of events that makes clear the vulgar rationale inherent to forms of law enforcement in which criminals and terrorists, even if they’re teenagers, deserve no more than unceremonious slaughter.
Bonello’s films verge on being works of historical theory through their harrowing scope of different epochal moments. House of Pleasures, set in a Parisian brothel in the early 20th century, examines the partial roots of how women’s flesh is fetishized and made into a commodity beholden to the interests of a paying customer. Saint Laurent sees its protagonist’s emerging insanity brought on by both a failure of personal politics and, imperatively, an inability to satisfactorily transform fashion into art. Nocturama can be understood as the final leg of an unofficial trilogy, where the possibility of a sense of self, or political mobilization of one’s own body, has been thoroughly, and irretrievably, co-opted by the implicit, distinctly masculinist decree of postmodern culture: feel good, or feel nothing. The film, finally, suggests a contemporary vision, equal in weight and scale to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, where the would-be zombies, lured into the intransigent den of an all-enveloping consumerism-cum-activism, are now the victims.