' ' Cinema Romantico: Nocturama

Tuesday, September 26, 2017


Bertrand Bonello’s “Nocturma” is a movie about a coordinated terrorist attack in Paris that refrains from doing a real deep dive into the specifics of the attack’s coordination, and that mostly forgoes chronicling the inevitable public fallout from the attack, and that never illustrates how the authorities go about tracking down the perpetrators, and that takes no interest whatsoever in the perpetrators’ beliefs and motivations. So then, what is “Nocturma”? It is terrorism in the abstract, underlined by a scary shot in which a bomb exploding on a high floor of some nameless office building is seen not up close and personal but through the eyes of Sarah (Laure Valentinelli), from afar and indifferent, with nary a thought stretching across her face. That sounds insensitive, and might be in light of recent events, Paris and elsewhere, but Bonello ignores the wider ramifications, deeper meaning and precise impetus of the plot to consciously render these revolutionaries as operating independent of any kind of fundamental truth. If radicalization is seen as being shaped by society, then Bonello shows society to be vapid, evoked in one unnamed Parisian shrugging off the attack as an inevitable consequence of a fallen world.

Running a little over two hours, “Nocturma” is essentially divided into two parts, the first crisscrossing between characters as they move about the city, on trains and on the streets, arriving at their various targets, making calls on their burner phones and then ditching them, all of which is nearly as abstract as the overall film, with no introduction to precisely what’s happening, just dropping us in their midst and asking us to follow along. Even if we do not know precisely what they are up to, Bonello’s rendering of it with a nimble Steadicam impresses upon us a great sense of control, of them knowing what they are doing. Why they are doing it is another matter altogether, and in the film’s second half, as the enemies of the state hole up in a luxury mall to wait several hours for the after-effects of their attack to blow over, “Nocturama” lets the why dissolve into dust, settling for a series of images and incidents that does not court or even reject empathy but just sort of let an eerily insouciant air settle.

Though “Nocturama” is mostly told chronologically, it occasionally skips a beat, flashing back to moments just before, or days before, connecting narrative dots, yes, but also dropping hints of rationale, which is to say it mostly just mocks rationale as beside the point. In a flashback,  In another flashback, Sarah seeks guidance from Greg (Vincent Rottiers) on her university entry exam, listening to him espouse half-baked theories on totalitarian regimes that his tones and word make clear he does not necessarily even believe, merely an attempt to make an academic impression, less ideology than prickly provocation. In the immediately ensuing scene, David (Finnegan Oldfield) tells Sarah how the July Column was constructed after the overthrow of Charles X in 1830, not post-revolution as many assume, as if uprisings are infinite, destined to leave monuments scattered about until the next revolt, whatever its reasons.

The scenes inside the mall, leaving them all manner of time on their hands, could have been Godard’s “La Chinoise”, engaging in politically charged conversation, or it could have been Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers”, finding some sort of inner sanctum even as everything all around them goes to hell. Instead it’s more reminiscent of Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette”, where the omnipresent designer brands and pop music suggest a modern Versailles. Indeed, one shot of Yacine (Hamza Meziani) soaking in a tub and sipping cognac calls to mind the former Queen of France with her heels kicked up and eating cake. Not for nothing does the moment preceding this one involve Yacine lip-synching to “My Way”, which Sarah Vowell once observed only works “if the person singing it is dumber than the song”, which might well make it a manifesto for this whole gang. Omar (Rabah Nait Oufella) spends all his time on screen with his face buried in his phone, playing music and bopping along, drowning out news reports of the terror they have unleashed with Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair”, incapable of differentiating between his own chaotic acts and mindless pleasure.

George Romero’s horror film “Dawn of the Dead” was set in a shopping mall too, an in-your-face shot at consumerist culture that, unsurprisingly, many noticed but few took as an actual life lesson. “Nocturama” is taking its own shots at consumerism, of course, with its shopping mall hideout, its characters seeking to unsettle a capitalistic society and then retreating into its cozy confines anyway, trapped within the very cage they think they are rattling. In a flashback to the eve of their attack the gang has a toast before turning on some sort of ambient electronica, the camera moving from person to person, none of them really dancing, just swaying, side to side, zoned out, their eyes vacant, their body language unmoved. They don’t look like radicals; they look like zombies.

No comments: