Anyone who cares about the evolution of cinema should rush to see Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama, which is screening all week at Facets. The film marks a breakthrough for Bonello, a highly original writer-director who’s long displayed a mastery of mood but whose movies (among them On War, House of Pleasures, and Saint Laurent) can be a little too obscure for their own good. In Nocturama, all his eccentricities—even his tendency for obfuscation—are organized around a palpable concept, which is nothing less than the precarious state of Western civilization. It’s supremely timely, capturing the zeitgeist better than any other movie I’ve seen. At the same time, Nocturam isn’t a diagnostic work—Bonello isn’t out to analyze the zeitgeist but rather create an aesthetic that reflects its mysteries and contradictions.
In brief, Nocturama tells the story of a group of men and women in their early to mid-20s who organize a series of terrorist attacks in Paris, then hide out in a department store until state police arrive and shoot them all dead. The first half of the film details the execution of the attacks, crisscrossing between the members of the group as they carry out discrete activities in a hotel, a government building, and a high-rise corporate office; it also contains flashbacks that show planning of the offensives without getting into the motives behind them. The second half takes place during the long night at the department store, when the group enjoys free reign over the merchandise. The bifurcated structure gives equal emphasis to the characters’ destructive impulses and consumerist desires, making destruction and consumerism seem like two sides of the same coin—or, rather, part of an Information Age continuum in which current events, pop music, shopping, and politics all fight for attention at once.
That the characters have no apparent political aims makes them seem like agents of chaos, an expression of something latent in the culture. There’s an eerie sense of inevitability to the events of Nocturama—Bonello’s brilliant, controlled use of the Steadicam (with its connotations of a ghostlike presence) creates the feeling that we know what’s going to happen before it even plays out. The director also rereviews details throughout the film, repeating the same events multiple times, which heightens the sense of deja vu. As an observer played by Adèle Haenel says, the terrorist attacks feel like they had to happen.
Adding to the feeling that we’ve seen all this before, Bonello invokes memories of numerous other films. In fact Nocturama is as mad with movie references as any classic of the French New Wave, and like the 1960s work of Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and Jacques Rivette (whose work Nocturama evokes in the conspiratorial planning of its first half), the feature looks at the zeitgeist through the lens of film history and vice versa. It’s worth delving into some of Bonello’s expressed reference points, as they provide clues to what Nocturama is getting at.
The Devil, Probably (1977), Robert Bresson’s portrait of a depressive college dropout and his circle of friends, is perhaps the most despairing French film of the 1970s. The movie begins with the news of the main character’s suicide, then flashes back to show the events leading up to his death. Along the way Bresson hints at reasons for the protagonist’s dissatisfaction with life—his despondence might come from feelings of political powerlessness, disillusionment with religion, and anger over the destruction of the environment—but ultimately keeps it a mystery. Bresson’s use of nonprofessional actors (“models,” as he called them) is at its most expressive here. The characters move with the awkwardness and put-on confidence of real twentysomethings, and since one doesn’t recognize the actors playing the roles, one is more apt to study their body language. In Nocturama, Bonello also casts unfamiliar faces in most of the leads, and he advances a Bressonian fascination with the surfaces (rather than the motives) of human interaction.
Bonello borrows more directly from George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1979), which also features a shopping center as a critical setting. Holing themselves up in a mall to hide from the zombie plague outside, the heroes of Dawn indulge their consumerist desires by taking anything they want from the shops. The apocalypse happening outside the mall renders the consumerist fantasy at once silly and sad, as it represents the characters’ last link with civilization. Nocturama repurposes Dawn’s dream of shopping in a void to suggest the finality of the characters’ situation. It also suggests, like Romero’s film, a link between violence and a desire for unlimited goods.
John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) clearly influenced Bonello’s manipulation of suspense in Nocturama, and I suspect that the former’s minimalist, synth-driven score influenced the music that Bonello wrote for his work. Like Bresson, Carpenter might be described as an anti-psychological filmmaker; the characters in Precinct 13 are defined almost exclusively by their actions. Pitted together to defend a police station from a siege by a violent gang, cops and criminals work side by side—the task at hand trumps any past animosities. Nocturama draws on the claustrophobic vibe of Precinct 13 and takes inspiration from the way Carpenter privileges the present moment.
Bonello also cites The Brood (1979), one of David Cronenberg’s works of “body horror,” as a source of inspiration. The influence seems more a matter of tone than of content—none of the characters in Nocturama transform into hideous monsters, but the film conveys the sense of undefined yet inescapable dread that one associates with Cronenberg’s 1970s films. As many have remarked, the major innovation of Cronenberg’s horror movies is that the terror comes from within the characters, not from outside of them. Similarly the characters of Nocturama seem to be driven not by external political forces, but by something inside of themselves they can’t explain.
All four of these films concern breakdowns, be it of a circle of friends, law and order, or civilization itself. In synthesizing these influences, Bonello conjures a feeling of inevitable destruction and decay. (The writer-director has also cited as influences Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up, which considers a breakdown between reality and fiction.) At the same time, Bonello can’t contain his enthusiasm for making movies—he draws on his influences much like his characters cheerfully take toys, clothes, and food at the department store—and in his excitement, he creates moments of unaccountable beauty. Nocturama contains shots that I expect to endure as long as anything in the works that inspired it: the bronze statue of Joan of Arc crying tears of turpentine before it gets set aflame; the young terrorist encountering a mannequin dressed exactly like himself in an empty showroom (does this inspire him to question his own agency?); the montage of explosions jarringly scored to Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair.” These passages, and others like them, raise Nocturama to the highest level of cinematic art.