Bertrand Bonello (House of Tolerance, Saint Laurent) directs this provocative account of a group of young, multiracial radicals whose terrorist attacks on Paris lead to a massive manhunt.
How does a film in the 2010s deal with terrorism? And when a filmmaker is French, how does he or she go about tackling this subject in the wake of recent deadly attacks?
Bertrand Bonello began work on Nocturama a half-decade before the horror of Paris, November 2015, and the finished work arrives as domestic terror reaches new levels in modern France. The film is controversial not for what it includes, but because of what it excludes. That should not deter people from seeing it, and grappling with the questions it raises.
Nocturama is split into two very distinct parts, and this structure is part of its formal challenge. In the first, we see a group of young French men and women plan and execute a series of attacks on multiple targets in Paris. The group is multiracial, a cross section of contemporary French society: European, African, Middle Eastern. It's a dynamic segment of the film, full of movement and action, with cellphones providing the primary mode of communication as the various groups efficiently carry out their objectives. The second half of the film is a complete contrast: on the run from the army and police, the terrorists hide out in a huge, vacated department store.
Interior/exterior, movement/stasis, individual action/group retrenchment — these are various axes around which the themes of Nocturama revolve. Where is the controversy? Well, not one specific reference is made to religious extremism. The terrorism in the film is uncoupled from this context. Whether this ambiguity was a brave choice in commenting on fragmentation and politicized violence in Western society is left very much up to the audience. Either way, in a year with numerous terrorist-themed films, Bonello has addressed the radicalization of 21st-century youth in a profound and unprecedented way.