Friday, June 16, 2017

Nocturama (in the presence of Bertrand Bonello)

Director: Bertrand Bonello
Country: France, Germany, Belgium
Year: 2016
Duration: 2.10
Languages: fr
Category: Bertrand Bonello    Midnight Sun Film Festival, Sodankylä.
    In the presence of Bertrand Bonello, introduced by Satu Kyösola.
    DCP with English subtitles at Cinema Lapinsuu, 16 June 2017

Timo Malmi (MSFF): "The newest work of Bertrand Bonello is a real display of skill, a tour-de-force direction that depicts 130 minutes of a terror strike committed by Parisian youth. It flows rapidly without any dead spaces; pure cinema that works without too much dialogue. This cinematographic feast reminds of Holy Motors by Leos Carax, partially set in the same milieu, and Spring Breakers by Harmony Korine."

"Set in two parts and a “break”, Nocturama opens by moving hypnotically in the subway corridors, streets and public buildings of Paris. Youth of various ages and backgrounds commit acts that prove to be terror strikes – and congregate in a consumerist paradise of a luxurious department store (filmed in the famous art deco building of La Samaritaine). In the puzzling finale, these memorable main characters spend their time among the wonders of culinary pleasures, consumer electronics and high fashion."

"” It had to happen. We knew it would.” says the cycling girl in the film´s slower part. Bonello rejects all explanations, moralizations and suggestions of motive in a provocative but admirable manner. He just shows the great plague of our times in a tangible and realistic way. The triller-like form as well as his composition and choice of music (“My Way”!) serve the whole admirably."

AA: A disturbing and original thriller about a terrorist attack against key institutions of the establishment. The attack has nothing to do with ISIS or any other ideology. Bertrand Bonello's story brings to mind Dostoevsky's Demons, Conrad's The Secret Agent (filmed by Hitchcock as Sabotage), and Godard's La Chinoise, among others.

The young people of the film are rebels without a cause. We witness them carry out an ingenious and dangerous plan of sabotage with great success. They hide at night at an empty department store and regress to childhood. Gradually it turns out that there is no substance in the campaign.

No explanation or motivation is given, but there are histories of frustration, unemployment, and alienation behind the young people. An impressive society has been built by previous generations, but these young people feel left outside. They come from all walks of life: from the elite to the marginalized.

The long section in the deserted department store has been inspired by George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead, among others. And perhaps even by The Big Store by the Marx Brothers. It is a bizarre vision of the "immense accumulation of commodities" in our consumer society.

Key musical themes refer to the 1970s. The Sid Vicious music video of "My Way", also included in The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle (his way: the one of destruction). "Call Me", the theme of American Gigolo (1 February, 1980, a film with an emphasis on consumerism). And John Barry's theme for The Persuaders which to Bertrand Bonello is a theme of fate, of imminent death, as he explained in the Q&A.

Nocturama is Bonello's first film shot digitally. The cold, hard look befits the subject.



One morning in Paris. A fistful of adolescents, from different backgrounds.

Individually, they begin a strange dance through the labyrinth of the metro and the streets of the capital. They seem to be following a plan. Their gestures are precise, almost dangerous. They come together in the same place, a department store, at closing time.

The night begins...



The film emerged from both a feeling about the world in which we live, and formal cinematographic ambitions. I wrote the very first draft five years ago, while I was working on House of Tolerance – a fictional, opiated period film – and I wanted, in contrast, to make next an ultra-contemporary film, conceived in a very different way, very direct, more like a kind of gesture.

I therefore wrote a draft very quickly, which addressed a climate I’ve felt for a long time now... one I’d describe as the “pressure cooker effect”. That is to say, something simmering, about which I ask myself: “Why doesn’t it explode?”

Of course, the very essence of human behaviour is to adapt, to integrate and to admit things that are in fact unacceptable.

Then, from time to time in history, there is an insurrection, a revolution. A time when people say “stop”. A refusal.

I started with this premise and quickly inclined towards genre cinema, in the sense that I wanted to address the how rather than the why.

Why is dealt with in the scene where Adèle Haenel says: “It had to happen.” You just have to walk in the street to feel this very palpable tension, or look through a newspaper to realise that it could happen. That’s why the film begins without any introduction.

How do you take action, how does it happen? In the film actions are for me more important than words.

Action versus discourse... how versus why. Mystery also plays an important part in cinema and I didn’t want to try and rationalise things that are not always explicable or justifiable.

From the beginning the script was entitled Paris est une fête. This antiphrasis was absolutely in keeping with the film that I wanted to make.

I put it on hold to make Saint Laurent, and then returned to it, with shooting scheduled for summer 2015. During post-production, Paris est une fête took on an entirely new meaning, and it clearly had to be changed. Naturally I turned to music.

Nocturama is the title of an album by Nick Cave. I liked this idea of a Latin/Greek hybrid that would mean night vision.

I asked Nick if I could use it and he said yes.

He explained that the word in fact referred to the area in a zoo created specifically for nocturnal animals. That suited me very well.

Nocturama also evokes something nightmarish.

From reality to fiction

As a filmmaker, I’m not a substitute for a journalist, a sociologist or an historian. My aim isn’t to decipher current events or to comment on them.

In any case, current events are too quick for film, which will always be overtaken if it attempts to stick to them.

The strength of fiction lies elsewhere – in the recreation of a world with its own rules, logic and key elements.

Observation rather than analysis.

Literally «Paris is a Feast» - the French title of Ernest Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast, which became a slogan of hope after the 13 November 2015 attacks in Paris.

For me, the fact that one is sensitive to or inspired by reality is a given, but the next stage is to free yourself from it and make it your own. To feel free. Reality can be found elsewhere anyway: in the choice of an actor or a location.

From exterior to interior

The structure came first. That was the basis. A first section with isolated characters, outside, in motion, supported only by journeys and actions, characters who only appear together for a brief instant, in two impressionistic flashbacks.

Then a section in which they are together, no longer in action, but waiting. The transition from exterior to interior world also allows for a transition from reality to abstraction, from a real world to a fantasy world.

As soon as the characters enter the department store, there is no longer an outside world; no more windows, no mobile phones, there is nothing left and they reinvent something. Fiction and mind take precedence over the exterior.

Then, at a certain point, a character steps outside again. He almost tries to escape before realising that, in the final reckoning, he no longer belongs in the outside world. He no longer has anything to do there. So he returns.


From the beginning I chose to remain only with my group of characters. Everything is from their point of view. Like them, we don’t know exactly what’s happening on the outside, except in certain instances via TV screens. I didn’t want cross-cutting.

First, it helped me focus on the idea of time passing by. Second, they are what interests me: this micro society that they form together, compelled to start over in order to survive.

The off-camera brings us closer to them.


I wanted to film Paris realistically, including its tougher aspects.

It’s a very difficult city to film, very beautiful, but damaged by its internal life, road signs, advertisements, construction work and so on. But I decided to put all this together.

The characters’ journeys are part of this realism. For the metro scenes for example, we filmed in an almost documentary style.

We didn’t ‘privatise’ any locations. We were in the middle of everyone else. I wanted to show the richness of the metro, all these different atmospheres, via this opening ballet.

As for the choice of “targets”, it addresses this need, which runs throughout the film, to go from the feeling of something real to one of derealisation.

I don’t have anything against HSBC or the Ministry of the Interior. But they are there: part of our society, our environment, our daily life. It’s an idea of repression, of capitalism, of suffocation. The collision between a kid from the suburbs and Joan of Arc was one of the first images that came to mind when I started writing the script. For me, it’s a certain idea of France. I didn’t want blind, lethal attacks. I’d rather work with symbols.

At first I worried that the young actors might not relate to the story, but after talking to them, I understood that it really resonated with them and that I wasn’t far off target. In a political and critical speech, they spontaneously refer to financial institutions, the Ministry of Justice, the media, economic oppression and everything that seems to have seized power over their thoughts and freedom.

The department store

Department stores like this one are fascinating, truly fictitious places, in the sense that they are the recreation of a world inside a world. Everything is there. All of “life”, from bathtubs to food, from beds to televisions... It is also a symbol for the consumerism of our time, including virtual consumerism.

After having violently attacked the exterior world, the characters find themselves locked up in this interior world. They are caught. It’s inevitable. Each finds him or herself in a different area of the store.

Because that’s what they would like to be, it lets them dream, it’s easy, they need it or it’s simply who they are... There are two scenes for example, where a character finds himself face to face with a mannequin dressed exactly like him. In the former , we are confronted with consumerism, in the second, with death. The disappearance of the self.

Whereas things are so difficult to obtain in life, here everything is simple. It becomes a place of freedom, even if it’s artificial. So they allow themselves anything: taking a bath, go-karting, even a show. Among all the ideas I had, I kept the most absurd as they are for me the most beautiful. I preferred dreams to the trivial or materialistic.

The choice of the actors

Among the actors, only half already had film experience, the others had none. I was keen on this mix and balance. These novice actors bring wonderful things: their faces, their way of moving, the musicality of their language. I love actors, but here I took great pleasure in filming other faces, new bodies, their body language – sometimes clumsy but always fresh.

I knew when I was writing that I’d be directing only 50% of the characters. The actors would bring the rest themselves, with their personalities, their way of being, who they are. I often told myself that the mise en scène should bend towards fiction, and the directing of actors towards the documentary.

Casting lasted almost nine months. I met all sorts of young people. When I was writing, I was in a fiction, in fantasy. But when I met them, I was surprised that what I told them of the story didn’t seem at all extraordinary to them.

They told me: “That seems normal, that seems logical to me, we just lack a little bit of courage, a little bit of organisation... I’m not violent, but I could do that”...

Our Children / Lost Youth

Having watched the finished film, I see something I didn’t realise when I was writing it. A part of them remains anchored in childhood, and I find that troubling. The film also addresses this: this is what we have done to our children. The most fictional point of view of the film is its very first premise: its desire to bring together young people, from different geographical and social backgrounds, whom society does everything to divide. To bring them together with one shared ideal. In a way, it’s the “punk” aspect of the creation of the film, the sense of an almost adolescent utopia, a desire for refusal, even perhaps for destruction.

What interested me was that they all shared this urge to say: “Stop!”

In parallel, we have seen these past few weeks, on the streets, the rise of youth movements that also expose, in their own way, a refusal.

When I was preparing the film, I re-read La Boétie’s “Discourse on Voluntary Servitude”: a very short yet extremely powerful book, and a call to insurrection.

I had forgotten that it was written by a 20-year-old kid in the sixteenth century. La Boétie explains how there is a time when man accepts things that an animal wouldn’t.

Nocturama is first and foremost a film about refusal. The only way to express this was to form a heterogeneous group and to try and find a logic, something obvious, in the way in which they can be together.

This “being together” as we would say of “living together”, was fundamental. At the beginning of the film for example, they function alone or in pairs, or threes but are rarely all together, apart from in the flashback during which there is a dance scene. Almost a trance. I really wanted something to unite them, without relying on speech or dialogue. I recorded music that was both rhythmic and ambient and immersed them in it. I let them appropriate it for themselves.

Each of them eventually found his or her place in the room and in the sound.

Mise en scène

I was obsessed by the mix of ultra-realism and abstraction: realism in the ir journeys, the details, all very documented, HSBC, Manuel Valls... and abstraction in the interior, the disconnection.

So I worked a lot on movement and gesture. A sort of action unlike an American action film, but which must nevertheless bring tension. And within this tension, I knew I had to pace things, sometimes almost in real time, taking time with the characters so as not to “puppet” them, so as to be absolutely with them from start to finish. The film is meticulously arranged. Every movement, every angle, every change in angle.

It’s constructed like a musical score.

The trickiest thing was to find a tension in the waiting, when they are in the store. From the moment we don’t know what’s happening on the outside, we have to organize time passing with (what happens) off-screen.

FOOTNOTE: In France the Nuit Debout movement began on March 31st 2016 as a reaction against proposed labour reforms known as the Loi Travail. Street protest united thousands of young people, in the style of Occupy Wall Street in the US, or the anti-austerity Indignados in Spain.

In the same way, I worked a lot on the placement of the moving shots and static shots. For example, when the character played by Finnegan Oldfield leaves the store, I wanted very simple setups: static shots in a deserted Paris, with a single actor passing through the frame. The scene conveys a sense of calm, playing not on the hysteria of the outside world, but – on the contrary – on its emptiness. Even if this sense of calm is just as terrifying. Then came the idea of temporality, which, like the film, would go from the real to the unreal. After a while in the store, I wanted time to diffract. We go backwards, change the point of view, play with the idea of a “broken record”.

The further we go into the film, the more time explodes. This instils a sense of derailment. Then there are the scenes with the GIGN (National Gendarmerie Intervention Group) I arranged these with a former member of the GIGN. I didn’t want the violent assault known as “the shield”, but rather an infiltration, slow and relentless, that they call “the anvil and the hammer”. Here too time is drawn out.

In the story, it’s justified by the fact that the GIGN don’t know how many “enemies of the state” there may be, (for them, the term is fitting considering the chosen targets), if they are armed or unarmed. This allows a sense of calm that I find even more powerful.

Then there’s the question of the image, the lighting. This is the first time that I’ve shot in digital. I think it’s very appropriate for this film to have a somewhat harder image, colder, more defined, and not to seek the aesthetic of 35 mm.

We structured the light in the department store in five parts: Very bright, then totally dark then once again fully lit, then half lit, before the GIGN turns off the power once again. This creates movements within the film.

Regarding the anamorphic ’Scope, it give s a fictional edge while HD brings a sense of reality. As always, it’s a question of finding that delicate balance.


I knew early on that I wanted both parts of the film to have their own musical identity, even if one overlaps the other at times. A score on one side, a sort of jukebox on the other. They’re in the department store; they play records.

For the score, I wanted something electronic, but not electro; something that reflected a state of mind, an urge; something that works through sub-bass and close attention to frequencies. As I’m lucky enough to write my own music, I started working on this as I was writing, to obtain the musical textures at the same time as the screenplay. When it came to choosing the albums they play in the store, the songs came naturally as I was writing and didn’t change. Because the film’s title was Paris est une fête, it seemed consistent to have at some point the notion of show, a final show. I thought: “department store, staircase, walking down the stairs...” and thus My Way.

It is the most unreal scene of the film. It really emphasizes the break with the outside world and tips the film into something very dreamlike, very artificial, theatrical. But above all, for me, something tragic. Here I see the end: death. In the same way, the music of The Persuaders was an obvious choice. I love its melancholic feel. But the idea, at this point,as the assault is about to begin and death is close by, was also to bring back the idea of childhood. Theirs and mine.


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