“Paris is happening.”
A pulsating soundtrack strikingly offsets an otherwise quiet, tense opener as we witness several Parisian teens riding a metro straight into the heart of the city, clearly on a mission. What are they plotting? The sparse dialogue purposefully keeps us in the dark, but we do sense the urgency to their plans.
We spend a lot of time with these characters as they wind down corridors and pass off items, slowly pulling off their elaborate scheme. Director Bertrand Bonello purposefully keeps the audience distanced from the characters, making this story more observational. It is cold and disturbing, as it should be, and a rarity to have this many characters who we are never meant to gain any emotional attachment with, and Nocturama is all the better for it.
The idea behind Nocturama was conceived before the November 2015 Paris attacks, but eerily predicted those events. And, despite the location of this story being Paris, as an American in the midst of a new presidency, peaceful protests turning to smaller groups of civil unrest, this story is becoming more topical by the minute.
Something worth noting, in a time when many acts of violence derive from racial conflict, this group is made up of teens of varying ethnicities, gender and ages. The characters we follow seem like a twisted version of “lost boys” gathered up by an anarchist Peter Pan of sorts. However, certain questions viewers may have, such as wondering how this group was formed in the first place, are left unanswered. As with life, sometimes we do not have the answers for why individuals do what they do.
After committing an act of terrorism, the group seeks refuge in a shopping mall, an interesting place to hideout in from a story standpoint. It is in this location where the story allows the audience to spend some time to get to know these characters, not necessarily to gain empathy, but to remind the audience the ages of these characters. Violence can strip away childhood innocence very quickly, but the shopping mall becomes an interesting place to let their true ages shine through, as well as becoming a location ripe for social commentary.
When the gang isn’t trying on clothes or playing with the latest toys, they are discussing the violent events that have just passed, celebrating and questioning them. However, the film still offers little answers as to how they formed or why they did what they did, other than it being “Something that needed to happen.” In a flashback early on, two members of this faction are studying revolutions for a homework assignment that also leads into a discussion of their disdain for their parents. Do these two subjects lead to their inspiration for the violent acts the ultimately commit? The film doesn’t answer this and has a bit of self-awareness in the way it tiptoes around revealing any sort of motivation behind character actions. Instead, the film poses many questions but refuses to jump to conclusions as much as the characters refuse to give in to what society offers to them as answers.
This may lead to a frustrating conclusion for viewers who want a definitive ending, but sometimes in life, we don’t have all of the answers for why people do what they do. Perhaps the point of the film is to make us question and come up with our own answers for why people think like they do, for the best way to find a solution is to explore such questions ourselves. [A-]