Nocturama, Bertrand Bonello’s arty French thriller about a coordinated terror attack in Paris, wrapped production just before ISIL staged its horrifying November 2015 assault on multiple targets in the city, claiming 130 lives. The ISIL attacks—four bombings and four deadly shooting sprees, including the massacre of 89 people at a rock concert—make the movie seem tame by comparison. In Nocturama ten young radicals execute a wave of assassinations and bombings, but there are no mass civilian casualties. And in contrast to the Islamist attack that played out in real life, the one in Nocturama is weirdly depoliticized. One perpetrator brings vague jihadist leanings to the plot, but some of the conspirators, and all of the masterminds, are white and apparently well educated. They make sarcastic left-wing comments, but nothing you wouldn’t hear at a bar.
Whether the real-life tragedy renders Nocturama tasteless is something I’ll leave to the victims’ families, but if you can ignore this aspect, you’re in for the most suspenseful film to hit town all year. Bonello (Saint Laurent, House of Pleasures) spends the first half of the movie smoothly interweaving the trajectories of his many characters as they move into position for the assault. Nobody says anything, but the atmosphere is charged with tension. In the subway, tall, handsome David (Finnegan Oldfield) and cruelly beautiful Sarah (Laure Valentinelli) knit their fingers together and gaze soulfully into each other’s eyes. A flashback shows them in bed together earlier, and another shows the group gathering to plot and party, but otherwise the momentum builds steadily.
Despite all this, Bonello doesn’t really detonate his movie until the second half, when the attack has been carried out and the surviving terrorists sneak into a chic, high-rise department store to spend the night. This is blatantly ridiculous—if they had any sense they would scatter—but it pushes Nocturama even further from the grim headlines of the day into a sort of socialist fable. Overcome by egalitarianism, David invites a couple of homeless people into the store to share in its riches, which adds an element of chaos as the night wears on. The conspirators, who’ve been defined in the first stretch mainly through their silent actions, begin to emerge as people, especially when they fall in love with the merchandise; one young man, overcome with lust, strips the swimsuit off a gleaming white mannequin and molests it. Blasting tunes all night, they turn the store into their own little dreamland, but wait until they see the bill. v