The first question you’d have while watching Nocturama is what the heck does the title mean. The term loosely translates to the tiny enclosures in zoos where some special animals are placed, who only come out at night to play. They spend the rest of the day hiding from society, either too shy or too disgusted by everything around them. In the film director Bertrand Bonello applies that theme to a bunch of strange young people in the zoo of France — Paris.
Nocturama is a unique cinematic voice — sometimes a straightforward thriller but not wholly so, sometimes an abstract pastiche, and ultimately a palette of different kinds of cinema. It’s dark, disturbing, but also often hilarious — depending on how far you’re willing to go to consider appalling acts of anarchy entertaining. But more importantly, it captures the zeitgeist of free thinking modern youth, scrambling desperately to understand their place in an increasingly anesthetised society.
The film is split in two halves. The first, which runs for a dreamlike hour, follows a bunch of youngsters in Paris traveling from one place to another, some in trains, some in trams, some on foot — they all seem to know each other but it’s not entirely clear as to what their goal is. It turns out they’re planning a terror attack.
Once that revelation is done, director Bonello, however, does not follow the template of cops and robbers — the narrative shifts into a poetic, idealistic mode where the youngsters find themselves in a mall, bored out of their wits. This is, ultimately the irony of modern youth; more than the need for equal rights or the frustrations of poverty or corruption, boredom is the primary emotion that drives them and makes them indulge in attention seeking actions, even if it costs someone their life. In surreal sequences, we see the kids in the film lose themselves in the forest of capitalism that is a shopping mall, using it as a playground to make sense of the world.
There are overlong tracking shots, and long sequences of nothingness in the film, but there’s no denying Bonello’s emotional and cinematic passion. This is a film that is defined by his filmmaking intelligence, he has the confidence to create an amazing fantasy reality in a mirror of the real world. The characters in the film feel real, perfectly capturing the lack of empathy they feel from the previous generation, their liberal standpoints often regarded as rubbish. The characters don’t necessarily answer why there have been so many terrorist attacks in France lately, but they give you a chance to introspect over how the attacks could possibly be reduced if people sat down with wayward youngsters and tried to understand their point of view.
The film is a lush cinematic painting of existentialism, madness and surrealistic style with images often charged with Godard’s style of art nouveau youthful revolution. Needless to say this is not a feel good film, but in such a richly nihilist world it’s only pertinent that art reflects bitterness as starkly as possible. And on that front, this is unfortunately a film for the ages.
Nocturama is currently streaming on Netflix India.