Nocturama, a slow and challenging thriller about a terrorist attack in Paris, is hard to decontextualise from the recent real-life tragedies.
The first stretch of Bertrand Bonello’s film shows the meticulous preparation undertaken by a seemingly disparate group of Parisian youths in implementing a coordinated sequence of terrorist attacks. People board trains, exit stations, and deposit mobile phones into trash receptacles. Characters constantly check their phones for the time; we are given exact updates on-screen. Bonello is absolutely painstaking in the practicalities of the set-up, all while offering absolutely nothing by way of motivation. About 50 minutes into the film the bombs are detonated, and the second half of Nocturama sees the group of about a dozen terrorists hole up in one of the city’s premier shopping centres, intending to wait out the authorities’ search.
The pacing is one of the most interesting, if off-putting, facets of the film. The first pre-attack section is almost teasingly slow, only gaining any tension in the immediate events preceding the blast. Once the bombs go off, the expectation is that surely the action must follow. If anything, the film becomes even more static, as the characters traipse around the empty mall behaving like regular obnoxious youngsters. The wait, for them and for us, is interminable. At the very end, when the SWAT team inevitably closes in, we are then treated to an action sequence that is no less defiantly drawn-out.
“a bold and uncompromising misjudgement”
Bonello, knowing the audience craves such a showdown, is like a sitcom parent who finds his child smoking a cigarette; we are dutifully forced to smoke the whole pack as we bear witness to the protagonists’ being gunned down with shocking coldness, over an exhausting length of time. Many of the executions are shown again and again, from different angles. Throughout the film, there is pitifully little to sympathise with – the characters are killers, relatively untroubled by remorse, and with completely unknown motivations – but the sickening ending forces our sympathies to realign, if only out of base, guttural pity.
There are interesting sequences, most broadly a lip-synched performance of ‘My Way’ by one of the terrorists in wig and make-up. It is one of many moments where Nocturama is undeniably effective, and, indeed, it is admirable for a film to be able to evoke such a physically unsettling reaction as this. However, it is difficult to isolate Bonello’s film from the realities of the terrorist threat in France. The complete lack of context to the characters fails to ring true, and even comes across as irresponsible. Nocturama is a bold and uncompromising misjudgement, a film which gets you viscerally involved but leaves you ultimately frustrated.
Image: Bertrand Bonello