It Had To Happen: Thoughts on NOCTURAMA

Nocturama, Bertrand Bonello's potent and wildly adventurous drama about a group of young people who orchestrate a series of attacks in Paris, has ended up on Netflix following a predictably fraught battle to be released anywhere at all. It is one of the great films of the year, raising and answering questions touched on by current events and other films of 2017; its politics are disquieting in their vamping nihilism, yet they also seem to chime with the state of the world around us. How does the film fit in the world as we see it today? I'd like to compare it to a few other films in order to tease out its singularity of purpose.

Nocturama is a film of French youth - and it is a film about French youth and violence, which aligns it thematically with Celine Sciamma's Girlhood (2014) and Houda Benyamina's Divines (2016), as well as Laurent Cantet's equally prescient and lithe The Workshop (2017). All four films address youth as a terrain of political displacement, showing characters who feel deracinated from their surroundings, who turn to violence or crime as a relief from this disconnection. Cahiers du Cinema criticised Girlhood and Divines as films whose politics exalt money and consumerism, and decried the way the films saw no alternative for their characters than petty crime, showing the new generation in France as greedy and politically zero. Girlhood imagined a dream scenario for its bold, black heroines, painting them as goddesses in the film's most visually stunning episode, as they dance to Rihanna in a luxury hotel: is this really a patronising view of youth, cornering these young women in a thin consumerist dream, or is it actually a beautiful and upliftingly positive depiction of black female camaraderie, seeing the girls as they can imagine themselves to be? I would tend to side with the latter interpretation, even if I agree that Sciamma's film errs on the bleak side, with elements of manipulation in its narrative.

Nocturama similarly holes its protagonists up in a deluxe boutique, and as with the hotel scene in Girlhood, part of its strange appeal comes from probing the odd psychological disconnect between its fleshed out characters and the confected luxury of their surroundings. The clash of the worlds, in both films, is depicted with a buzzing, hypnotic fervour, finding something heady in the conflict, and tacitly siding with youth through visual and musical choices, which displace the surroundings and render them alien. But where the Diamonds in the Sky sequence in Girlhood clearly is aspirational, in Nocturama the store where the young terrorists shack up after their crimes feels only alien and strange. The film accumulates instances and visual cues that puncture the opulence of the clothes and goods on display: this surfeit renders the riches completely banal, and transforms the shop into nothing but a big theatre of excess, a souped up dressing-up box. The lives of people who can afford these things are unimaginable: they don't enter the film's compass, and they are satirised by being so artlessly played with. For instance, when one of the kids uses some of the shop's top-notch make-up, a couture outfit and a wig to execute a lipsync of I Did It My Way, the things used are not even remarked upon, as they are meshed totally into performance, and therefore owned and subverted by a youth that is only interested in how these things can be used. (Bonello brilliantly cuts between the performance of the song and the quiet, butchered world outside, which undercuts the excess but also shows how dislocated the young people are.) Similarly, the outsize televisions on display are only of interest for what they can do, not for what they represent: the youths use them to find out that the police are onto them, and that their hours are certainly numbered. 

In this, the claustrophobic feel of the film and its busy visual treatment echo certain aspects of Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk (2017). Furthermore, both movies depoliticise their heavily political scenarios, in ways that intersect but are ultimately different. For both films, the avoidance of political specificity positions the youths at their heart as pawns, or puppets. The young men dodging bombs and hoping for evacuation from Dunkirk are barely aware of the series of political events that dictated the situation: Nolan's characters mention "the enemy" most of the time, and Germany only a couple of times; Hitler never. This sense of the boys being unwitting actors in a skirmish that is completely beyond them is underlined at the end when Alex, played by Harry Styles, worn out and shell-shocked, mumblingly reads the news in the paper. Shorn of Churchill's grandiloquence, the reading of the events seems oddly dim and untethered to reality. Nolan, I would argue, goes too far in this exercise, since the events of Dunkirk and the whole WW2 effort were actually motivated by a quite dramatic exercise in propaganda: the moral imperative to defeat the Hun was used as so much leverage to spur British activity and nationalism. 

Nocturama also, in a much weirder way, sees its protagonists as pawns, particularly in an oddly oneiric sequence in which David (Finnegan Oldfield), the gang's de facto leader, adventures into a ghostlike Paris, and meets a young woman on a bicycle. He asks her about the day's events, about what is going on, hoping to hear what an ordinary person's take might be on the violent attacks he and his friends have committed earlier in the day. Extraordinarily, the young woman seems unfazed by the atrocities, and even expresses a belief that they 'had to happen'. "It had to happen. Now it's happened", she says, and pushes off on her bike into the night. Why did 'it' - a violent attack on Paris - 'have' to happen? In Bonello's world, the events are weirdly pre-ordained and the young people are merely vectors of this violence: this reading is certainly supported by the film's virtuoso opening scenes, which follow the young men and women as they prepare, with a cold determination, to unleash their brutality on an unwitting world. I would argue that these characters barely have any agency in Bonello's film: they are caught up in cataclysmic forces that are beyond their scope. 

Indeed, what are the young people even protesting here? What is the object of their action? Bonello never states his case, beyond a glancing reference in conversation between two young men of Arabic extraction to the notion of attaining paradise as a reward for violence. But jihad is only alluded to, never pinpointed as a motivating factor, and in fact many of the protagonists here are white, well to do, and integrated. How can Bonello purge his film of the very particular motivations behind violent terrorist attacks, which in France over the last couple of years have been specifically attributed to an Islamist desire for retribution, and which have been often associated with ISIS? Bonello's events belong almost to the category of fantasy, which creates an intensely disquieting sensation when married to the film's hubbub of activity, its astonishing plastic beauty, and its strange vision of young people performing. Doesn't this add up to a bleakly nihilistic worldview, in which society does not exist? 

Bonello is cannier than this, surely. First, he creates a series of situations in which we are clear that there exists between these people a sense of camaraderie and unity. He exalts their beauty, and finds in many of his characters a desire for connection, for bodily communion; in David there is a soulful desire to protect his girlfriend (Laure Valentinelli); Yacine (Hamza Meziani) longs to be seen and touched; Mika (Jamil McCraven) is eaten up with worry for his peers. Perhaps there is a sense in these characters of a desire for beauty, for isolation from the ugliness of the world outside; for togetherness in their actions. Secondly, the young people here are shown as victims, too, of a state - their brutal demise in the film's closing shoot-out, filmed with a savage precision in refracted time, so that the events repeat and repeat, speaks of a generation that is oddly hopeless and lacking in true agency. They have never imagined a future for themselves; that future does not, in any case, exist.

This vision of a youth so cruelly wanting in agency, that is resigned to an absent future; that performs its audacity while shielding itself from reality, is certainly bleak, and probably nihilistic - but there is also a poetry to Bonello's film, a savage grace, that somehow redeems this stance, bestowing sweetness, casting forth beauty, drawing out wonder, showing all the possibilities that are to remain so miserably untapped. 


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