J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Bonello’s Nocturama

Tom Wolfe’s prophetic words: “the dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States and yet lands only in Europe” applies with double irony to the violent millennials who will unleash a day of terror on the city of Paris. They have embraced the very tactics of fascism they would ascribe to those they disagree with, while inspiring a ruthless police state response to their atrocities. Yet, whether Bertrand Bonello has admiration or contempt for them remains maddeningly ambiguous throughout Nocturama (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

The first half-hour of Nocturama is an absolute master class in blocking and editing, as we watch about a dozen twentynothings crisscross their way through Paris. Although they seem to know each other, they only make oblique acknowledgements. They are clearly up to something sinister, but Bonello takes his time revealing the particulars.

Eventually, we learn the homegrown terrorists plan to plant bombs in the Interior Ministry, a colossal office building still under construction, and in cars parked along a major thoroughfare. Simultaneously, they also plot to assassinate the French head of the HSBC Bank and set fire to a statue of Jean d’Arc. Seriously, only French leftists could consider a revolutionary peasant girl to be a symbol of patriarchal imperialism, or whatever.

In many ways, Nocturama is a withering indictment of immature anti-capitalist rhetorical posturing, but it is unclear whether it was intended as such. Eventually, Bonello’s crew of radicals takes shelter in a high-end Harrods-like department store, where an accomplice has executed his fellow security guards. There, they enjoy all the fruits of the capitalist system they supposedly so despise, as they wait for the heat to blow over. At this point, Nocturama loses steam, down-shifting into a riff on Dawn of the Dead, but these terrorists are bigger monsters than any of Romero’s zombies.

Fittingly, the crew often engages in lip-synching to pass the time. Arguably, their politics is another form of lip-synching that regurgitates revolutionary platitudes but lacks an understanding of their context and full implications. Being “against globalization” is just the thing to be, like wearing designer urban couture. Still, we cannot help feel the tension as they get antsy, like rats in confined spaces.

Visually, Nocturama is a dazzling work of auteurism. Cinematographer Léo Hinstin keeps the look and vibe of film perched just on the cusp of the surreal, but never lets it teeter over the edge. It is bravura filmmaking, but Bonello’s coquettish refusal to make moral judgements has not aged well in light of the very real terrorist attacks that rocked France during the film’s post-production. We are left with an aesthetically impressive work that inhabits the same moral-ethical space as Leni Riefenstahl’s documentaries. Anyone who seriously studies or covers cinema will need to deal with it, but it will leave most viewers of good conscience deeply troubled by its extreme detachment from humanity. Ambiguously challenging in every aspect, Nocturama opens today (8/11) in New York, at the Metrograph.

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