Nocturama opens up with a lengthy sequence in which various teens and 20-somethings board trains, walk into buildings and up metro stairs into the daylight of Paris. Visual exchanges are made; worried glances between each person that signify solidarity, if not confidence. But not a single word is spoken. It’s an enthralling opening that rivals There Will Be Blood as an exercise in conveying information with silence. The camera pins to each character, surveilling their every move. The sensation created isn’t so much the silent, urgent stalking of Seconds, but we are able to share the characters’ concerns of being followed. One would be forgiven for thinking that this functions as a homage to the haydays of French silent cinema, if it weren’t for the distinctly modern approach to editing intervals, and Nocturama’s startlingly timely premise.
Following this group of ragtags for the entirety of the film, Nocturama’s first segment focuses on the execution of a plan that reveals itself to us along its runtime, occasionally utilising flashbacks to display both their preparation and their character traits. Though, perhaps intentionally, and certainly appropriately, their traits coalesce until it’s difficult to separate one from another.
The film’s second, longer segment concerns itself with the aftermath of what they set out to accomplish. The characters huddle together in a department store closed for the night, trapped among excess. They are left to roam the store and indulge in the splendour of what it has to offer, unshackled from the unease of the day before. They are no longer the enigmatic figures of Nocturama’s first half – they are themselves again. They race go-karts, snatch wedding rings, and there’s a wonderful and baffling mimed rendition of Shirley Bassey’s My Way. Tellingly, this re-enactment goes on a little too long; our protagonists are surrounded with decadence – a store-sized world of near-limitless opportunities – yet it’s hard to shake off the feeling that they’re simply passing the time. And perhaps it’s just that – boredom – that dictates the narrative of this clique.
There are many other possibilities that director Bertrand Bonello suggests as rationality for what the characters accomplish, but he never leads his audience towards a single, definitive direction. Bonello understands the intelligence of his audience, leaving us to infer reason and motivation from the strands he leaves behind.
When the music is not being dubbed, it’s being blasted in full volume across the entirety of the department store. It seems as if all of Paris is able to listen in, not that the characters mind. The choice of music is knowingly provocative: ‘Whip My Hair’ is boomed out as haunting footage of the millennials’ actions during the day are broadcast on the stores’ plasma screens. The characters hardly seem to notice the juxtaposition. Why should they? Most of these characters are proud of their feat – to them, it’s not a horrifying act of pseudo-rebellion, but a glorious stunt that they can bask in to the tunes of Willow Smith.
This doesn’t apply to all of them. A girl named Sabrina voices her guilt. The source of it is obscured – she was observed by a policeman, and may simply feel remorse at potentially being caught. A boy, David, doesn’t fulfill his role in the plan. He is seen leaving the department store for a smoke, wandering the streets of Paris for a while. His actions here almost taunt services to find him. It’s not made clear – nothing is in Nocturama – but it’s as if he wants to be caught.
We learn their names gradually as the first half of the film develops – not that their names truly matter. These characters are templates, faceless beings stripped of identity much like the mannequins that Botello frames them against. They serve as passengers of a non-specified ideology, the film’s politics more concerned with species than race, in spite of its subject matter. As David wanders around Paris, he questions a woman his age about the events of the day. ‘It was bound to happen, right?’ she answers. Nocturama is a perplexing film, but it is also an understanding one – Botello acknowledges the complex mind of youth, and all of its contradictory, unexplainable facets. These minds belong to a world that they seek to destroy. These minds, too, are unfocused, the hypnotic determination of the day giving way to a growing lack of restraint as the night wears on. Mika, they youngest of the group, confesses his love to Sabrina. Much like Cairo Station, this is not the film for that, and Nocturama knows it. This exchange functions as a pointed remark of the characters’ insistence on distracting themselves from the horrors that they have committed, and that wait in store for them. And as the group gradually lose any self-control, the sense of the inescapable kicks in.
While Botello’s use of displaying time – the camera switching between each character in a not-exactly-linear fashion – strips the film of some of its urgency, it does fuel a potent inevitability that rears its ugly head in its final few moments. This is slick film-making, an exercise in control. The characters themselves may not possess much in the latter half of the film, but the camera is patient, waiting until the right moment to converge its repeated timelines, and the right moment to sprawl them out again.
Nocturama offers insight towards its cast of young friends on a mission. The trick is that it does so without the need for exposition or background knowledge. It is a current film with a current concept – the flashbacks it does occasionally refer to aren’t entirely necessary and are often contradictory to the film’s intent, marking the low-point in its narrative. These characters don’t need names or faces or dialogue. They may not even need reason. Nocturama is an angry film, but it condemns the notions of this set of youth without dehumanising them. Their awkward dancing, penchant for pop and teenage squabbles do well to offset the distinct lack of humanity on display in the film’s first half. Any association with mannequins isn’t intended to mechanise them, but to simply reveal that they are not unique or special, and neither is the ideology they share. Nocturama’s protagonists aren’t robots, or revolutionaries – they’re infant radicals.