A disturbingly relevant snapshot of contemporary tensions, Bertrand Bonello’s “Nocturama” observes in minute detail how a small group plans and executes a series of terror attacks in Paris before retreating to a luxurious department store. These aren’t your garden-variety extremists, but a mix of people of different ages and origins, which makes this sure-to-be-controversial treatment all the more provocative. Working from a nerve-racking script written five years ago — long before the wave of attacks that started in France on Jan. 7, 2015, with the Charlie Hebdo shooting — Bonello replies to the news with a magnetic and purely cinematic gesture that may have frightened the Cannes Film Festival selection committee (the touchy film was ready in time for the May edition), but should spark a wide range of reactions when it screens at the Toronto and San Sebastian film festivals, following its domestic opening in France on Aug. 31.
Bonello had originally christened the film “Paris est une fête” (the French title of popular Hemingway memoir “A Moveable Feast”), but changed the name after Hemingway’s book became a symbol of resistance against religious extremism — a nostalgic relic of “the way things were.” By contrast, “Nocturama” designates the area in a zoo where the nocturnal animals live. It is also the name of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ dark and ominous 2003 album, which often sounds like an apocalyptic prophecy. Both allusions perfectly echo this seventh feature by Bonello, also a musician, who composed the heady soundtrack for his film. To extend the musical metaphor, “Nocturama” is divided in two movements with very distinct tempos and an intermission in the middle.
Act One begins in the Paris metro. A crowd of young, good-looking people walk briskly through the underground corridors, all beautifully played by a mix of newcomers and professional actors. After they have taken their seats toward the front of the subway, a series of discreet looks among them reveal that they know each other. Most look tense, but the one who could be the leader, a red-haired, baby-faced young man in his mid-20s (Finnegan Oldfield, “Les Cowboys”), appears incredibly calm.
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Their silent perambulation continues in the streets of Paris, but even outdoors, the atmosphere feels oppressive: Clearly, something terrible is happening, stressed by Bonello’s intense electro vibes, though the clues remain sparse as the small group scouts locations, enters official buildings, and drops some shady-looking packages at various sites around Paris. We can surmise that an attack is being prepared, but the film offers no indication of what this very heterogeneous group is fighting for, nor how they ended up together in the first place. What could bring together a bourgeois student (Laure Valentinelli), a bunch of kids from the suburbs (Oldfield, Manal Issa, Hamza Meziani), an unemployed 30-year-old (Vincent Rottiers), and an Arabic teenager (Rabah Nait Oufella)?
Act Two takes place a bit later that night in a large department store (this section was shot in the stunning — and for the moment unoccupied — Art Nouveau building La Samaritaine, previously seen in Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors”). One by one, the radicals slip discreetly into the building and find fitting rooms in which to hide until closing. Only one is missing: Was he scared? Did he give up? Did he die in the operation? (The film invites such questions, but remains sparing in its explanations through the end.)
Once the last customer has left and the doors have locked behind them, the odd group of terrorists emerges from hiding, and the words finally start flying. They congratulate themselves, laugh, sing (Paul Anka’s “My Way,” The Persuaders), and occupy every square meter of this incredible space. Shot like an elaborate playground by DP Léo Hinstin, this luxury store — generously stocked with food, fine wine, and name-brand clothes — suggests a miniature and more peaceful world where everything might be possible (say, to dress up as a rich kid, or as a woman when you’re a boy from the suburbs). And yet, via TV screens in the electronics department, we discover the extent of the damages: the Ministry of the Interior, the HSBC tower in Paris’ La Défense business district, and a statue of Joan of Arc have all been targeted, among other symbols. The young terrorists briefly comment on the attack, but leave their motives a mystery.
Within this unbearable ambiguity lies the director’s ethics: Bonello isn’t a journalist or a sociologist or a politician. He’s a filmmaker who reacts to the social and political climate — in this case, by twice orchestrating a sequence of bodies taking possession of spaces that reject them. At the intersection between the first act (the waiting) and the second (the action), a short scene, which serves as an unreal pause, offers the closest thing to an artistic statement. Oldfield’s character, David, has secretly left their new headquarters to breathe and feel the pulse of the city under attack. Everything is eerily quiet, and there isn’t a soul about. A young woman (Adèle Haenel) suddenly appears on her bicycle. They smoke a cigarette together, and when David asks if she knows what’s going on, she gives him the most enigmatic and disturbing answer: “It had to happen. We knew it would.”