I could ding Nocturama for being on the nose in its second half, when it gathers its group of youthful terrorists within the confines of an expensive shopping mall and has them ogle over all the brand names and couture creations while they wait out the mayhem they created outside. Bonello doesn’t explicitly spell out the contradiction here between these disaffected anti-capitalists and the consumerist binge they perpetrate when out of society’s sight, but it’s pretty self-evident all the same.
But I’m not going to ding it. Not when Bonello directs the shit out of this joint and puts so much visceral sheen into it. From minute one, we’re thrust into what seems to be an elaborately planned attack on Paris’ gilded corners from a handful of innocuous-looking teens, the camera following their movements as they keep track of the time, take pictures of strategic locations and lay out all the chess pieces with seeming confidence. Even more brilliant is the double-bluff that Bonello executes, filming and editing these happenings with so much intent and deliberation that we’re fooled into thinking that these youngsters are experts at the game, and have an agenda to match. Only later do we find out that they’re amateurs with motivations as hazy as the smoke that emanates from their detonated explosives. It would be just as accurate to say that they’re bored schoolkids who undertake this ghastly scheme simply because they have nothing better to do with themselves. And that’s what makes Nocturama so chilling.
Even more daring is the film’s desire to have us like them. When the ending arrives, and zero hour makes its dreaded arrival, it’s hard not to. For all their mistakes and hypocrisies, these kids aren’t evil; rather, it’s the systemic inequalities, institutional oppression, and right-wing political baiting that seem to have forced them to act with such catastrophic intent. That “seem,” of course, is intentional, because Bonello withholds any and all explanations that can help us make sense of these events. All we know is that, at some point, they were radicalized by someone who wormed his way into their lives, and when push came to shove, that person was the only one who abandoned the project during its undertaking. The bombs went off, and in the aftermath, the perpetrators revealed themselves to be a cross section of society crying out for help, their voices falling on deaf ears.
A masterful study of political and commercial spaces intersecting to the point of personal crisis, Nocturama is one of the boldest creations you’re bound to come across. It’s also one of the best, because it never wastes a minute of its time. Even when the action shifts to the polished veneer of the mall, the ways in which the characters unravel in the midst of the markers of conspicuous consumption ends up being just as exciting and incisive as the way they carry out their terrorist plot. It comes together like a dream, despite carrying the poison of a nightmare. In sum: cinematic excellence.