A Tense Thriller
Bertrand Bonello’s “Nocturama” open with nearly a dozen Parisian youths, without a clear sense of destination, boarding and exiting a series of trains. The scenes set in a shopping mall later that night lend significance, to this as when Yacine (Hamza Meziani), who’s been wearing a Nike shirt and sneakers all day, comes to a mannequin wearing the identical outfit. What we soon realize is that we are seeing a society so consumed by the digital that young people are unable to separate “likes” from radical politics.
The film then goes back in time to show the characters’ plans to commit a series of bombings and shootings across Paris. David (Finnegan Oldfield) is the mastermind for this and he along with pal Greg (Vincent Rottiers) and girlfriend Sarah (Laure Valentinelli), conceive 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 (we see and hear Greg casually explain 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 (that have had not experienced violence in their lives), the prospect of a behind-the-scenes uprising is very attractive.
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. We see that technology and public space’s construction around such technology affords the luxury of feeling proximate to political action without actual, empirical knowledge of it and this is the central irony of this film. The use of mediated communication in almost every scene, gives us a clear 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, is amazed by the building’s sound system and he lip syncs a song that is being played on it. His mimicking gestures are evidence of how feeling and sincerity are made interchangeable with fantasy when music becomes a cornerstone of cultural knowledge.
The real strength of “Nocturama” is 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 looks at morality or moralism. A group of police officers, in heavy armor and with 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 to be slaughtered.
The possibility of a sense of self, or political mobilization of one’s own body, we see, has been co-opted by the implicit idea of postmodern culture: feel good, or feel nothing. The anonymity and youth works perfectly to do what it’s set out to do. As the young people rush around taking trains hither and yon in the disquieting, opening sequences, we sense their energy. We know that they are planning something but until it happens we have no idea of what it is. When it’s over, things tend to go wrong. But the question is how. Each one must transcend the tradition in his own way. We see the strange, subtle, drawn-out disintegration, staged in a large, old, extremely posh Paris department store where the young terrorists mysteriously assemble, and hide, and wait all night.
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 radicals hide out in the abandoned La Samaritaine department store, where luxury boutiques still reside. With the action is confined to the mall for the remainder of the running time, the satire comes with the characters burning off energy by window shopping through the store.
The implication is that today’s youth cannot take themselves apart from the capitalist system they claim they hate. The climax comes with the police tracking down the bombers and conducting a shoot-first-ask-questions later raid. In this brutal response of authority, Bonello gives a mirror image of the young radicals’ own actions.