Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 16, 2017 3:29 pm 
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Bonello's ballet of young terrorists

Ideally the title will seem to you dark, cool, and threatening. Those who've been unable to avoid seeing the trailer, as I have several times, will suspect a terrorist act involving a dozen or so young people of mixed social and racial types. But it's still a gripping, tense thriller composed in new ways: staccato, process-oriented, powerfully suspenseful, turning a cold eye on youth, politics, consumerism, holding you in its tight, sweaty grip for over two hours. Dazzling in another genre, Bertrand Bonello goes on showing his originality, boldness, and chops.

Even the unsatisfied ones must grant the boldness and variety of Bonello's filmography, in what I've seen of it. Apollonide was a languorous period film of a nineteenth-century Parisian bordello. Saint Laurent was a biopic, but a cool one, focused on the designer's period of high fame and other highs, and lows, drugs, decadence and depression- with a to-die-for cast including Gaspard Ulliel, Helmut Berger, Dominique Sanda, Léa Seydoux, Louis Garrel, Jérémie Renier, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi - YSL himself would have liked to be in it. Nocturama takes on the different challenge of an action film. Except Adèle Haenel, who speaks a key line, and Vincent Rottiers and Finnegan Oldfield (not really box office luminaries) the cast is carefully selected but largely unknown.

The anonymity and youth of this team underlines its simple efficiency. It works perfectly to do what it's set out to do. As the young people rush around taking Métro trains hither and yon in the disquieting, brilliantly conceived opening sequences, grabbing stuff, and tossing "burner" phones, all focus and all energy go into the operation. What is it? We don't know till it happens. And Bonello plays a bit with time, shifting back and forth among the characters, challenging and confounding us (this is a movie that will benefit from repeated viewings). When it's over, as we know from movies from Rififi to Reservoir Dogs, then things tend to go wrong. But the question is how. Each one must transcend the tradition in his own way. What's new about Nocturama is the strange, subtle, drawn-out disintegration, staged in a large, old, extremely posh Paris department store where the young terrorists mysteriously assemble, and hide, and wait all night.

Bonello has explained how he conceived this movie while working on the "opiate," sleepy Apollonide: something completely different, contemporary, fast, hard, energetic, explosive. (It's explosive, alright.) The opening rushing around of the young men and women he saw as like a ballet, organized, purposeful. Then, the shock, the explosions. Last, the waiting, dissipation of energy, chaos. As he describes it, his film was thus conceived in contrasting movements, abstractly, impressionistically, telling its story "plus dans l’action que dans le discours (more in action than in speech). So, nothing likeRififi's long period of planning. No filling in of character - except for one or two, and what emerges or is hinted at in the last third. Viewers may complain of a lack of character or of technical detail. They can't fuss about the tension. That screws up tight in the first frames and won't let go even in the enveloping flames of the final credits.

Bonello is musical and particularly here tecnno and other types of very loud contemporary music are screwed up to a pitch to produce a sense of (I have to keep using this word) tension, dissolution, Dionysian release: in the deluxe playpen that is this department store where the wind up the kids find the sound system department and crank up the Bang & Olafson. It throbs and screams and shakes us. When after the Paris attacks of 13 November "Paris est une fête" (Hemingway's celebratory Moveable Feast) having become too much a morale-building rallying cry, no longer was a good title, Bonello browsed through his albums and found "Nocturama" by Nick Cave, a word that turns out to apply generally to the part of the zoo for nocturnal animals which fits the film and its conclusion too. Terrorism became specially sensitive for French people in 2015, but Bonello avoided problems by staying focused on the subject as he conceived it six years ago.

Mike D'Angelo rated this highest (74) of the films he first saw at Toronto (Toni Erdmann was an 82, but already seen at Cannes). His tweet was hedging on the score, "Depends where I ultimately land on the ending, the ugliness of which I'm not sure is justified. But this is stunning." So: yes, the ending, where the Gendarmerie Nationale's shock team GIGN moves in and guns them down, is brutal and numbing. But it provides the decisive sense of an ending that suits the construction of this remarkable film. This is a conceptual revolutionary movie on steroids. Especially at the end it didn't really remind me of the November 2015 Paris attacks but the claustrophobia of Marco Bellocchio's 2003 Buongiorno, notte (2003) about the Red Brigade kidnapping of Aldo Moro - which does not end well. After D'Angelo's recommendation, I was surprised Nocturama wasn't in the New York Film Festival (so was he). Now that it belongs in the US to Netflix, people are afraid it won't see the big screen, or not much. That would be wrong. It's a magnificent looking and sounding film - even if in its effective creation of discomfort and nerves it goes on a bit too long at two hours and ten minutes.

Nocturama, 130 mins., premiered in Paris 8 July 2016, in French theaters 31 August. Over 15 international festivals starting with Toronto. AlloCiné press rating is 3.4; Metacritic rating 73. (On D'Angelo's scale, his 74 is much higher.) Some French critics were displeased by the lack of context or politics or realism, want these young people to be vicious ideologues instead of confused and naive, as they are. Les Inrockuptibles gets it right: the film shows their utter foolishness but is tenderly sympathetic toward their anger and frustration with the materialistic world they've inherited. Screened for this review as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center-UniFrance 1-12 March 2017 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.

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