dir: Bertrand Bonello
Every now and then even people, like me, who’ve seen millions of films, will watch a film and say to themselves, or someone nearby, “I have no fucking idea what that was about.”
Sometimes having an experience like that fills me with great anger, and furious vengeance, like when I watched Upstream Color and hated it so much I recently watched it with my daughter just so she could know just how terrible and pretentious a ‘grown-ups’ film could be. More recently, when a flick garners some critical praise and I endeavour to seek it out, when I have an experience like the one I had last night watching this French flick, I just shrug my shoulders and think, “well, maybe it makes more sense to French people” and then go on with the rest of my life.
I can’t claim to understand what the point of Nocturama is or was, but I’m comfortable with that. It doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things. As long as the director got something out of it, and the kids in the flick are happy with their work, then who the fuck am I to complain about it?
It would seem that this flick is about terrorism, or at least the main characters commit some acts of terrorism in the heart of Paris, but giving it political significance like that might be foolhardy. This flick was apparently made well before the massacre at the Bataclan where Eagles of Death Metal were meant to be playing, or the Bastille Day atrocity in Nice, or the myriad other instances of so many human lives being wasted for the dumbest reasons possible. The kids here don’t seem to be doing it for anything like the same reasons ie. fundamentalist hatred, loneliness, not getting the biggest slice of cake at that 8th birthday party.
If the ‘kids’ here have a leader, he is the straight-laced and dorky looking son of some mainstream French politician. He seems to be inspired by something, by some desire to make a statement, and has recruited a large group of perhaps similarly disaffected kids to his cause, who each might have their own reasons for getting involved. A number of them are perhaps from the kinds of backgrounds that Marine Le Pen and the rest of the National Front would want to boot out of the country or kill or both, but they don’t seem (I have no idea, really), seem to be doing what they’re doing for ideological reasons, or nationalistic reasons.
I don’t know what is happening, or why. But I do understand what happens: The first hour of this flick is about a group of people involved in an endeavour which will result in explosions around the centre of Paris. The sites chosen and the locations are meant to strike fear into the hearts of… I don’t know, all Parisians? The government? Architects? Le Corbusier? People that like statues?
Whoever. The plan isn’t to commit a massacre, though clearly some of the participants are excited about killing a bunch of people. Some steps are taken to minimise casualties, which isn’t the norm in these kinds of endeavours usually, but it points either to the desire to commit a symbolic act of terror or a naivety, a wilful blindness about just how awful their actions truly are.
So. That first hour. It’s about process. Mostly it proceeds in a chronological way, but at some moments it doubles back and repeats or extends scenes to explain, belatedly, what actually happened in certain instances. I’m not the first person to mention Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, which non-chronologically followed a bunch of characters around before and during a school massacre.
A lot of that section is watching a person being followed by a cameraman as they take a train, walk, take a different train, climb some stairs, make eye contact with seeming strangers only to be nudge nudge wink winking about something. Car doors are opened, packages are removed, car doors are closed, other doors opened, others remain locked.
It’s very hard to figure out what the hell you’re meant to be figuring out at this point, until you just let go and let the process flow through you. If this were a heist movie, all of that first hour would have been done in a three minute montage.
Depending on your sensibilities, probably, if you watch this flick, and you probably won’t unless you have a deep love of French movies that are inherently pointless (tautology there, perhaps), one hour of this flick will probably appeal to you more than the other half.
I don’t know which half is better, I don’t know which half is worse. They are certainly different. The second half has the kids holed up in the La Samaritaine department store, hoping that everything is somehow going to be all right for them, if they just stay inside the department store for 12 hours.
Why? Well, somehow they’ve come to believe that, after blowing up a bunch of buildings and killing a score of people, if they just stay quietly in a department store and make some lazy commentary about capitalism, then maybe the authorities will forget about them and just go on with their lives the next day?
It doesn’t matter, because the goofiness of the ‘plan’ implies the plan matters. The plan doesn’t matter. All it is, is a reason to keep all the characters in the same place until the end of the flick.
When I was about eight or nine, I remember starting a fire at the old house we used to live in on Ormond Road. It wasn’t in the house itself, it was in the side bit where there was a pile of cut grass. I started the fire, but didn’t make sure that I put it out afterwards.
The rest of that day, away from home, I kept thinking about the fire constantly. I was certain that the house was somehow going to burn down because of what I did. Days later, even having seen that the fire had gone out of its own accord and caused no damage even to the mouldering pile of lawn clippings and general side of the house crap, I was convinced that someday the fire would spark up again and burn the whole world down.
Watching the second half of this flick, that’s the feeling that I had wondering whether the kids were going to be safe, or whether the fire was going to consume them all. I felt that tension, but the characters in the flick, well most of them at least, don’t seem that concerned, really. They’re a bit worried, but mostly you’d be right in thinking that they’re concerned about some homework they have due, or about the stain on that shirt of theirs they really like but can’t seem to shift, or wondering what’s going to be on the telly tonight.
They swan around like cool, disaffected French kids, put lots of mascara on, take a bath, flirt a bit with each other, basically kill time with little if any urgency. One of their number even invites some homeless people into the store to take whatever they want and eat and drink and be merry, that’s how little concern he has for being caught.
However much process matters in the first half, as in, everything they do and how they do it, and how it coordinates with the actions of others (all flatly delivered), process, or what happens and why doesn’t seem to really matter in the second half. Stuff happens that probably matters greatly to the characters it happens to, but the how and the why doesn’t really matter.
After all, with these attractive French kids, all that matters is that they’re attractive, and French, and kids. The rest is existential or immaterial, take your pick. So when one of their number sees a mannequin with exactly the same Nike gear on it that he’s wearing, so he puts on a suit instead and lip synchs with Shirley Bassey singing My Way, what matters is that he looks cool doing it, not whether it makes any sense in the context of the flick or how it happens or why it happens. That it happens is what matters.
When the ending comes, thankfully, gratefully, shocking as it might be, it seems like it’s the only ending possible, even within the context of a flick that doesn’t hew to a conventional or even comprehensible through line, or that it had any point to make beyond the foolishness of collective action or of teenagers desperate to not turn into their parents. It’s hard to even say if it’s much of an indictment of consumer capitalism, or an indictment of anything, really. The flick doesn’t seem to condemn the actions of the kids, and while it might mock their aspirations, it seems to be fairly neutral on that score.
Maybe you could argue that it indicts the authorities, whose actions towards the end are ruthless but not surprising, but it’s hard to say it’s undeserved. The acting throughout is fairly flat, so it’s not aiming to be ‘cool’ or romantic (in like an outlaw French New Wave - Breathless – Bonnie & Clyde kind of way), so the ending isn’t stylised or glamourised: it’s the equivalent of watching the ill-fated fish in the often referred to barrel getting shot just like fish in a barrel that they are. There’s nothing cool about that.
While I might have said, several times, that I can’t really see what the point was, I didn’t hate watching it. It kept my curiousity alive throughout, and I can honestly say I somehow ‘enjoyed’ the experience of watching it. The use of music was interesting, and there was a pretty cool synth-heavy 1980s style Tangerine Dream / Vangelis like soundtrack which I kinda liked.
I can’t imagine sitting through it again, though.
Not for all the umbrellas in Cherbourg.
Nocturama – lotsa kids doing dumb shit then hanging out at the mall.
7 times I can only imagine how much worse this would have been with American teenagers in it out of 10
“It had to happen. It really had to happen” – well, I don’t know if I agree with you on that one – Nocturama