MIFF Review: Nocturama

Bertrand Bonello, whose last film was the lavish Saint Laurent, has come up with something equally stylish, but thematically from another world, with Nocturama.

For much of the first hour the film consists of a series of tracking shots as Léo Hinstin’s camera follows several seemingly unconnected individuals in their early 20s furtively walking the streets of Paris. It feels like the French equivalent of a 1990s Wong Kar-Wai film.

It transpires that these young people are a part of a network of terrorists, and although they don’t necessarily know each other, their movements are being orchestrated by the only slightly older mastermind Greg (Vincent Rottiers). Their preparations result in a series of bombs going off around the centre of Paris.

Once this has happened, the group hide out overnight in a swank department store. One of the guards, Omar (Rabah Nait Oufella) is in on the deal and has done away with the other guards. Thus the young terrorists are left to their own devices, biding their time until dawn when the dust has settled and they can escape the city centre.

At no point is there any attempt to explain the motives of any of the characters. They don’t belong to any political group, but instead appear to be merely bored and up for creating anarchy just for the hell of it.

Young and reckless, they become more cavalier as the night wears on. Surrounded by so much upmarket consumerism, they can’t help but revel in it, playing loud music, trying on clothes, having a banquet and generally running amok throughout the store’s different departments.

This allows Bonello to get very creative with the use of music, from the pulsing electronic score he composed himself to the very arresting use of such diverse acts as Shirley Bassey, Blondie and John Barry’s theme to the 1970s TV show, The Persuaders. There’s even some Berlioz thrown in to put this into context with the origins of the Bastille. Even the film’s title has it’s origins in music, being named after a Nick Cave song, meaning night vision.

At one point, one of the more reckless young men, David (Finnegan Oldfield) ducks out for a smoke on the street and allows a homeless couple to come into the store. We watch them having the time of their lives, putting on expensive clothes and gorging on the food and wine at their disposal.

Like last year’s action thriller Bastille Day, Nocturama has been the victim of bad timing. Filmed before the terrorist attacks in Paris of 2015, the film was ultimately rejected by the 2016 Cannes Film Festival due to its politically sensitive content.

It is indeed an incendiary topic, literally, but there’s no disputing Bonello’s bravura filmmaking. This is such a visually inventive film which becomes more operatic in style as it unfolds.

Themes such as disaffected youth, the excesses of consumerism and nihilism are nothing new, but Bonello presents them with great verve. Nocturama is a visual and aural delight, which sadly has very few commercial prospects due to circumstances beyond the filmmaker’s control. 

✭✭✭✭

Nocturama is currently screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival

Richard Leathem @dickiegee