Good news for viewers tired of French cinema’s dusty romance with naturalistic drama: Bertrand Bonello is here to shake things up. The flamboyant stylist of the turn-of-the-century brothel epic House of Tolerance (2011) and lavish Seventies fashion biopic Saint Laurent (2014) favors anachronistic pop songs, split-screens, and surreal set pieces. Unlike his peers, he isn’t afraid to spice his tragic tales with some camp or to tread the line between absurd and poignant.
His latest, Nocturama, offers an uneasy blend of satire and romantic fatalism, tracking a diverse group of kids as they carry out a coordinated bomb attack in contemporary Paris and then hole up in a high-end department store. Dreamily abstract, verging on opaque, Nocturama conjures an atmosphere of existential dread while also honoring Bonello’s fascination with youth culture and pop music.
Dubbed the “Paris terrorism movie,” Nocturama had the distinction of being pulled from the Cannes lineup last year amid terrorist threats, though the film largely eschews pointed political commentary. Bonello, who was born in 1968, instead shows us the boiling point of anti-capitalist disaffection. While the kids’ revolutionary impulse may be naïve, and their actions even pointless, the film’s real villains are the adults steering Europe toward a crisis of economic inequality. In the end, Nocturama, like the Nick Cave album it’s named after, offers little antidote to the nihilistic malaise it serves up in style.
You started writing the movie six years ago. Looking back, you seemed to anticipate the kind of violence that has rocked France in the past year.
I put the project aside while I worked on Saint Laurent and then revisited the script in 2014. I really had the desire to make a contemporary film. My sense of the time was something explosive and that some kind of violence was inevitable. That’s the energy I felt living in Paris, in the streets, in the métro, in the newspaper. There was a very tangible tension. In the film, I didn’t want to point to one source. Instead, I wanted to capture this general feeling, and to make a film that was not about discourse but more like an action movie. Sometimes, when I finish reading the news, I wonder why the explosion isn’t greater than what we’ve seen.
In the flashbacks, we see a man, played by Vincent Rotters helping the kids to plan the attacks. But we never actually learn their precise motivation.
No, but I guess it’s easy to understand based on their targets [the Ministry of Interior, Stock Exchange, and Tour Total skyscraper complex]. I preferred using the gestures and action to express it. It’s true that the kids are naïve. But to defend them a little, I would say that the world is more complex today than it was thirty years ago. For me, it’s not surprising that this world can give us both terrorism and capitalism. I wanted this ambiguity in the film to reflect the ambiguity of the world we live in.
The kids come from different classes and ethnic backgrounds. Can you talk about working with the young cast, which is a mix of actors and nonprofessionals?
The most utopian aspect of the film is probably having a group of people from different backgrounds coming together. Once you’ve assembled your cast, you have to accept them as they are. I didn’t try to correct the actors too much. In this way, they bring a lot of themselves. In the flashback where they all dance together, I wanted them to really let go, as if they were in a nightclub. As a director, the challenge is to create a sense of a group.
The first part of the film takes place entirely in the streets and in the Paris métro. There’s very little speaking, and it’s incredibly tense.
I really didn’t want to depend on dialogue. I wanted the intention to be seen through the action. Shooting in the métro was the most difficult part of making this film. There were so many people, and it was very slow and very tiring, and I wanted to be very precise with the actual geography. If we needed to do a second take, it meant we had to go back to the previous métro stop. The mise-en-scène becomes like a puzzle. The film’s first half is like one movement leading to the explosions. And then this movement stops and the kids have to wait. The difficult thing for me was to create tension within the waiting time.
Why isolate the kids in the department store?
You don’t have any windows, so it’s shut off from the outside world. It’s a place where everything is possible. We see them playing games, trying on clothes, taking a bath. Also, the store is a re-creation of reality. The kids do something very bold in the real world and then they retreat into this virtual world, one that’s sold to us as some kind of ideal. I wanted to talk about these links between the terrorism outside and this superficiality inside. I was influenced by John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, which is also a film about people trapped together, while the outside world is filled with dangerous shadows.
Like Carpenter, you wrote your own electronic score. Can you talk about some of the unusual music selections?
My idea was to use an original score for the first part and have the second part be more of a jukebox of songs. Each choice has a particular meaning. For example, with the Willow Smith song, I wanted to have this big clash between the TV footage and the music. The kids play “Whip My Hair” and then turn on the TVs and watch the news of the attacks without the sound. The mix of sound and image is jarring. For me, it’s the most violent scene in the film. When Omar [Rabah Nait Oufella] performs “My Way” in drag, it’s almost like a Vegas show. I wanted him to do something in the store that he would never do in the real world. And the song is perfect because it’s both spectacular and tragic.
You conceived the film in a different climate than the one greeting it today. Has this changed how you see it?
I know it’s more delicate now. If you haven’t seen the film, these words “bombs” and “terrorism” are like triggers. When people see the film, they understand it’s set in a context different from the one we’ve experienced in the last year. It would be a mistake for me to try to supply answers. It’s not my job as a filmmaker. A political party has to have a program, but a political movie should not. Otherwise it’s close to propaganda.
Was it disappointing not to be at Cannes?
When the film was released in France last year, I noticed that a lot of journalists took a few days to think about the film before contacting us. I think that’s a good thing. The way the film is constructed, it’s normal not to have a precise idea of what it is five minutes after seeing it. At Cannes, journalists don’t have this time. They have to run out of the screening and write. So maybe it was a good thing we weren’t there.
Nocturama screens in the Film Society of Lincoln Center and UniFrance series “Rendez-vous With French Cinema,” which runs through March 12.
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