Nocturama: One of the Best and Most Provocative Films of the Year

Nocturama: One of the Best and Most Provocative Films of the Year

By Adam Cook

Divided into two parts—the first which follows a group of young people undertaking synchronized terrorist attacks on revolutionary monuments in Paris and the second which finds them all hiding out in a shopping mall after closing time—Nocturama is not so much about terrorism itself and boldly and provocatively refrains from exacting judgment on its characters’ violent acts. Instead, the first half meticulously tracks their methods and takes in the ensuing plot literally and matter-of-factly. It is in the second half where director Bertrand Bonello’s ideas brilliantly emerge, again not so much about terrorism but about the modern world and the responses it beckons.

There’s something disconcerting about the first half’s nonchalant attitude. It forces the viewer to look at the violence in a way separate from how media portrays it. To let it just exist in frame—to my mind a political act in itself. Bonello doesn’t want you to condone the violence you’re watching, but to reflect on it free of imposed narratives and motives (we don’t really grasp what’s really going on here, what the characters’ goals are, we just know they’re angry and organized). On the heels of tragic events in Paris like the Hebdo and Bataclan attacks, these are difficult images, but ones that feel vital in our historical moment.

Once they set up shop in the shopping mall, seemingly victorious, our young terrorists kick back and relax. Surrounded by shops and bourgeois capitalist iconography, they indulge. They blast music on the sound system, play dress up, lip sync to songs, fool around — in short these subversives appear as consumers as soon as they’re inside a capitalist space. Mannequins seem to mirror them — we even see some in the same outfits they’re in — and an eeriness starts to settle in. As time passes in the mall, it starts to feel like a sort of purgatory where our characters await judgment.

The film’s final gestures, which I wont spoil, in some way feels totally inevitable, but how it unfolds, so coldly and precisely, is one of the most bone-chilling conclusions to a film I’ve ever seen, and further complicates this already mysterious movie—perhaps revealing its true target to be the capitalist society itself, to blame not just for whatever the characters set out to rebel against, but the violence itself, which, alas, does not happen out of thin air.

Nocturama plays at VIFF Vancity Theatre August 18 – 27.

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