I’m not sure the world necessarily needed a movie that makes acts of terrorism look sexy & cool, but with so few transgressive places left for cinema to go you’ve got to respect Nocturama for finding a way to push buttons in the 2010s. Nocturama is certain to ruffle feathers & inspire umbrage in the way it nonchalantly mirrors recent real life terror attacks on cities like Paris & London. That incendiary kind of thematic bomb-throwing is difficult to come by in modern cinema, though, considering the jaded attitudes of an audience who’ve already seen it all. It helps that the film is far from an empty provocation; it’s a delicately beautiful art piece & a hypnotically deconstructed heist picture, a filmmaking feat as impressive as its story is defiantly cruel. Its shifting perspective & out of sync editing style estimates a kind of cinematic Cubism, amounting to a picture that deserves to hang in an art gallery, yet quietly lurks on Netflix in a haze of streaming platform anonymity. It’s weird to see such a politically jarring & visually arresting art piece slip so quietly into the streaming deluge of #content, but there’s also no other place for Nocturama exist peacefully in the modern word; it is not a peaceful picture.
The major wrinkle in Nocturama‘s claim as a transgressive work of fine art is that it requires a massive amount of patience. The film is not only over two hours long, but its dialogue-free first half is very slow to explain its plot or the relationships between its characters. If Nocturama partially functions like a heist film, it disrupts the typical flow of that genre by starting with the climactic heist. In the film’s disorienting first hour, nearly every teen in Paris silently navigates the city’s public transit system and trades knowing glances as they move with mysterious purpose from building to building and accomplish small, seemingly unrelated tasks. We later understand these kids to be orchestrating a city-wide terror arrack, the planning of which is gradually revealed in after-the-fact flashbacks. Targeting the destruction of institutions & monuments, not people, and never explicitly stating their motivation for this violence beyond vague economic unrest & cultural ennuii, the brand of terrorism depicted in Nocturama resembles the political philosophizing of the German indie The Edukators far more than anything relevant to real life. Still, depicting the allure of the hip-hop & techno-scored gang of teens in leather jackets & tight jeans blowing up a city to make an ambiguous political statement & inspire general chaos is at least somewhat irresponsible & dangerous. That’s not a point that’s lost on Nocturama, as the second half of the film dwells in a what-have-we-done fallout as the kids watch the world crumble around them from the vantage point of an empty shopping mall (recalling a dystopic horror like Night of the Comet or Dawn of the Dead). Still, the discomfort of its highly stylized, teenage acts of mass terror is a major reason why the film sticks to the ribs.
Although the puzzling rush of its opening terror heist sequence is sure to steer the conversation around it, Nocturama doesn’t truly reveal its full nature until the extended denouement of that act’s shopping mall fallout. These kids play video games & stage techno dance parties with the same intensity that they plant explosives & ditch burner phones. With the exception of a stray familiar face like Rabah Nait Ofella (Raw, Girlhood) & Adele Haenel (The Unknown Girl), the film mostly boasts a cast of unrecognizable teenagers, so that it feels vividly real watching them blast pop music acts like Chief Keef & Willow Smith or “shop” for free clothes off the store’s infinite army of creepy mannequins. Driven mad by a lack of contact with the world outside the mall and the wait for a new day, the paranoia and guilt resulting from the first hour’s transgressive act begins to weigh heavily on their minds. There’s a myriad of visual pleasures in Nocturama that can intoxicate & mystify: a golden Joan of Arc statue aflame, a lipsynced drag routine set to “My Way,” a city in chaos, a gold-plated mask, etc. What cuts through those surface pleasures, though, is the existential frivolity of these kids, scared of their own actions, as they essentially wait for the world to end. As with the real world political implications of its opening half, Nocturama pulls no punches there either and ends on a silently methodical, Cubist conclusion of fractured, meaningless violence. The entire experience is puzzling, hypnotic, and requires both immense patience & amoral political philosophy. It might be one of the most challenging films of the year, which is odd to say of something so flashy in its violence & youthfulness, but it’s also one of the most rewarding in the way it stimulates complex reflections on life in the modern world.