Review: Wisconsin Film Festival
Nocturama | Bertrand Bonello | France | 2016 | 130 min
Screened at 2017 Wisconsin Film Festival»

A stylistic tour de force, Bertrand Bonello’s audacious Nocturama captures the alluring emptiness of modernity with extreme realism and clever experimental flourishes. Jason Fuhrman shares his response to the Wisconsin Film Festival screening.

At once a radical gesture in genre filmmaking and a snapshot of simmering tensions in contemporary French society, Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama fuses cinematic realism with subtle formalist abstraction. This slick, incendiary neo-noir thriller observes a group of disaffected young people from different backgrounds who meticulously execute an elaborate series of violent acts before hiding in an upscale department store.

Set during one unforgettably long day and night, the film consists of two movements with very distinct tempos: a tense procedural first act, followed by a less plot-driven but still suspenseful second act. While staying with his characters and focusing entirely on their point of view, Bonello deliberately avoids trying to rationalize or explain their actions. With its complexly fractured narrative, kinetic, rhythmic editing, stylish production design, and heady, propulsive electronic score, Nocturama remains enigmatic and captivating until the bitter end.

Bonello’s script was originally entitled Paris est une fête (literally “Paris is a Feast,” the French title of Ernest Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast), which became a slogan of hope after the November 13, 2015 attacks in Paris. Although he wrote the very first draft more than five years ago and shot the film prior to these events, that original title acquired an entirely new meaning during post-production. Bonello decided to change it and turned to the title of an album by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Nocturama refers to the area in a zoo specifically designated for nocturnal animals. The significance of the film’s title becomes obvious in the second half.

Nocturama opens without any introduction on the streets and subways of Paris. Marked by fluid, elegant camerawork from Léo Hinstin, these intriguing scenes follow the main players in minute detail as they walk briskly through underground corridors, silently ride the Métro, exchange furtive glances, discreetly dump disposable phones, scout locations, enter official buildings, and drop off shady-looking packages. Timestamps appear on the screen, jumping forward then back again to convey the synchronicity of these maneuvers. For the most part, the characters remain isolated and only appear all together briefly in two impressionistic flashbacks which provide vague clues as to their intentions. With minimal dialogue, steady momentum, and plenty of verve, Bonello constructs a realistic buildup of suspense, while an atmosphere of mystery permeates the film.

Once these photogenic antiheroes accomplish their mission and rendezvous at the mall complex (shot in the stunning and now-defunct Art Nouveau building La Samiritaine), Nocturama shifts gears. The second half of the film examines how the characters behave in this perfect microcosm of mass consumer society. After having lashed out at the real world, they find themselves confined to an artificial paradise abundantly stocked with creature comforts, everything from beds and bathtubs to televisions and food. While the group waits overnight until the coast is clear, they freely roam about the windowless, soundproof space and indulge in expensive comestibles, fine wine, name-brand clothes, and aggressively loud music.

An insular, hermetically sealed simulacrum of the world with its own rules, logic and protocols, the department store represents their disconnection from reality and the moral vacuum they inhabit. Like the audience, the group does not know exactly what is happening on the outside, except intermittently via television screens. This plot device heightens a pervasive sense of derealization. Their conversations are eerily shallow and they appear to be unconcerned with the crimes they have perpetrated. They seem more interested in Bonello’s impeccable array of effective soundtrack choices, including “Call Me” by Blondie, John Barry’s melancholic theme from The Persuaders, an unreal cover of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”, and Chicago gangsta rapper Chief Keef’s trippy street single “I Don’t Like.”

Bonello’s aloof young protagonists seem impelled less by any political ideology or revolutionary fervor than by ennui and world-weariness. Devoid of strong personal identities or clear motivations, they are empty shells, inevitable by-products of the advanced capitalist society they want to recklessly dismantle. Among the film’s most memorable and borderline surreal moments are two scenes where a character finds himself face to face with a mannequin dressed exactly like him.

In a deceptive early flashback sequence, the well-to-do André (Martin Petit-Guyot) ostensibly espouses a radical philosophy as he muses on Pinochet, CIA intervention and how democracy ultimately eats itself. “Civilization is a condition for the downfall of civilization,“ he asserts. It turns out he is just breaking down his graduate thesis, but this sets a tone for the rest of the film.

Although the film apparently tends to aestheticize or glamorize the systematic use of violence, Nocturama suggests a darker and more disturbing purpose beneath its seductive surface. In the first half, Bonello creates an excess of reality while painstakingly documenting the group’s coordinated activity with a dynamic visual approach. As Nocturama transitions from the exterior world to the dreamlike fantasy world of an after-hours luxury shopping center, he adopts an increasingly static and abstract style. Bonello strikingly contrasts the two segments to explore the relationship between the inexplicable behavior of the former and the superficiality of the latter.

In the middle of the film, David (Finnegan Oldfield) secretly slips outside the store for some air and walks around the deserted, strangely calm streets. He suddenly encounters a young woman (Adèle Haenel) on her bicycle. They smoke a cigarette together, and when David asks her if she knows what is going on, she matter-of-factly replies, “It had to happen. We knew it would.”

By refusing to provide any true justification for the actions of his characters and revealing few details about their individual lives, he addresses the fundamental detachment and dehumanization that give rise to such impulses. Rather than attempting to analyze these acts, Bonello takes the pulse of modern alienated youth and exhibits something inescapable about the present moment.