Is terrorism is cool when cool people do it? Discuss. That’s the question Bertrand Bonello raises when he sets a pack of young assassins loose in Paris in his provocative, ever-so-slightly repellent Nocturama, a film consumed with high energy, confused about its motives, and not as revolutionary as it wants to be. Kinda like teenagers, huh?
Nocturama kicks off in high form. Armed teens and young adults fan out through Paris’s gilded streets and scuttle through the Metro, sneaking guns and explosives into banks, government buildings, and monuments. Relentless tracking shots, swift young bodies, and furtive glances set to a darkly glamorous techno score create a high-strung sense of mission interrupted by dreamy pauses. Time-stamped and captured on the fly, these scenes glide in a very au courant blend of slick, speedy high-tech set pieces and classic underworld thriller.
The narrative moves back and forth in time, tentatively building a storyline. What do the would-be assassins have in common? Not much. Yacine (Hamza Meziani) could be North African. Two are dewy, fragile young women, one coupled up to earnest do-gooder David (Finnegan Oldfield). The scruffiest specimen is no more than a child, and one buttoned-up young man (Martin Guyot, looking like a more elegant version of Michael Cera) has a crucial inside line to Paris’s systems of privilege.
It’s never clear how the motley band came together or what their objective is—a solemn exchange in a café alludes to civilization holding the seeds of its own destruction, but that’s as deep as the radical philosophy gets. Wild tribal dancing goes down the night before the gang embarks on their spree, each would-be killer swaying with the others but lost in his/her own private haze.
Soon gun battles and explosions are going off all over the city—in impeccable style, of course—with a close-up of flames engulfing the impassive gilded face of Paris’s iconic Joan of Arc statue. Ditching their phones and racing through traffic, the kids hole up in a contemporary symbol of capitalism’s collapse, the abandoned Samaritaine department store, re-created as a functioning emporium full of consumer-culture delights.
Here Nocturama switches gears from a raw expression of youthful fire to what feels like an esthete’s protracted voyeuristic gaze at kids gone wild. The fey, feral band wanders through the store, with the kids helping themselves to food, wine, and clothes and driving a go-kart down the hall. They admire their deadly handiwork as flames roil on three huge TVs to a blaring Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair.” Bonello drives home that kids today are crazy ’bout their music, with numerous scenes of frantic writhing to cranked-up hip-hop, and he anachronistically takes his film back to the Priscilla, Queen of the Desert era when Yacine dons a blond wig and lip-synchs to “My Way.”
The youth can’t tell their made-up world from reality at this point, but fear rears its head as the SWAT team closes in. David places a sad call to his mother, and the group’s mascot makes a wistful declaration of love. Sentimentalizing the young killers comes a little late and arouses unease, even offense. After all, these kids have just murdered a lot of people (we never know how many) and terrorized a world capital for no reason they can articulate. A wistful coda takes place where a lovely young woman (Adèle Haenel) fatalistically states, “It had to happen.” Oh, all right then.
Nocturama’s detached treatment of adolescent nihilism echoes modish turns by directors like Larry Clark and Michael Haneke—filmmakers love teens on a rampage. But the heart sinks as Paris burns. Hasn’t this beautiful place endured enough? Apparently Bonello made the film before a wave of terrorist attacks put the city on alert—maybe he should have thought twice. Raising the specter of horrible violence, then reducing it to a hedonistic kick, sells the power of a charged subject short and makes Nocturama also fall short of daring aims.