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Ultra-Realist Abstraction: Discussing "Nocturama" with Bertrand Bonello

The director of "Saint Laurent" discusses his controversial thriller about French kids attacking various sites in Paris.
Bertrand Bonello’s last film, a Yves Saint Laurent biopic, followed the famed 20th century designer from enfant terrible into the 2000s and his doddering old age. Saint Laurent’s fashion may have changed the world, but that world is now being changed by forces far more radical than any of his designs. The enfants terrible of Paris in Bonello's latest movie, Nocturama, aren’t provocative artists but rather a gang of 20-something Parisian terrorists. Shockingly, despite the ties to radical Islam of the attacks in France over the last year and a half, the terrorism of Nocturama’s youths seem to be enacted without explanation, as if in a cultural vacuum. When originally conceived, this cinematic possibility of Bonello’s clearly had the aim of presenting an abstract action. But since the real world has yet again surpassed the cinema by realizing the horrors originally considered on the silver screen, this enthralling film feels all the more strange by being at once utterly devoted to and disconnected from the moment.
The shocking and intentional absence of the film is that of -ology. The ideology, psychology or sociology of these terrorists is only vaguely suggested through a brief scattering of flashbacks and the strange bond—variously familial, cordial, affectionate, and professional—between the group that holds them tenuously but never quite envelopes them all. For the film’s first third, we watch these kids (one in fact is a teenager) methodically and intricately working their way through the Parisian Metro and office buildings to what end we don’t know—until we eventually realize they are priming scattered attacks. After the explosions, gunshots, and fire, they retreat as planned to a luxury department store in the city center, safely ensconced from the presumed chaos and manhunt, awaiting a new world being birthed outside they can only guess at.
While some may jump at the film due to its instant (seeming) obsolescence in a (seemingly) new world where France’s internal enemies appear far more clearly defined than they do here, Nocturama is without a doubt intended to strip clear motivation from the actions of its youth. They do not aim to kill or make a coherent political point, or even enact a grand gesture of generational nihilism. They are fastidiously followed by a cool, snaking camera and fierce cross-cutting that in the film’s expansive first act orchestrates intersecting pathways, synchronizing and decoupling time and space to follow different actors and actions across the city. It’s a technique continued in the department store, but in a constrained, closed circuit environment.
This approach and look pulls inspiration from methodical arthouse thrillers like Jacques Rivette’s Secret Defense and Gus Van Sant’s elegantly hypnotic mass school shooting film Elephant, along with the sly bravura of mainstream formalists like Paul Verhoeven and Brian De Palma. But the metaphysics of the former two and the irony of the latter two don’t seem Bonello’s purpose, which is indeed hard to identify. Certainly, as in Fritz Lang’s Depression-era You and Me, which also ends up with its criminals stuck in a luxury department store awaiting enlightenment, much is to be said about the fortress of consumption to which these terrorists retreat. Barilla, Fendi and Bang & Olufsen share equal screen time with the bombers, a murderer, and their accomplices. The kids play with and try on the fantasy clothing—but with near indifference. Despite Bonello’s slick camera and preference for a catchy soundtrack mixing ominous electronica with unexpected pop, Nocturama stops short of being the kind of hip youth-criminal lifestyle movie, like The Bling RingSpringbreakers, and this year’s American Honey, whose impressionist indulgences have become dismayingly common lately in arthouses. Nocturama explores and defines its spaces more precisely, with the Metro and the department store extensively pushed, pulled and probed by the camera as spaces of fraught tension, psychological uncertainty, and mixed emotions as the adolescents wind their ways through these mazes and their self-selected luxurious siege. The opening is a sprawling helicopter shot of daylit Paris, followed by a cut that plunges us into the darkness of the underground—a signal the film is focused not on the macro rationale of terror acts but the micro practicality and sensation of those activities.
Curious about what the outside world is like after their attack, a gang member—one of the most evocative of the group, a furtive young man, played by British actor Finnegan Oldfield, who looks perennially tired and strained, and shows a touching and genuine affection for his girlfriend, who is also in the group—steps out of the store to look around. Finding a young woman loitering with her bicycle in the empty street, he asks her what she thinks of the day’s surprise attacks. Her answer: “Frankly, it was bound to happen, no?” What the “it” is in that question is one of the mysteries of the film: not an attack like those against the zaibatsu and political figures in Japan in the 1930s nor against politicians in Italy in the 1970s; nor indeed like the radical Islamic attacks over the last year. Something else—the violent action’s unnuanced mixed message above all resembles the jumbled purpose but unavoidable anger and presence of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The youth in the movie are a mixed crowd, a range of classes and origins, half of them brown, the others white; they stay off their devices for most of the film, abstracting them from the flow (and excuse) of techno-millennial zeitgeist.  We don’t know who they are, we catch glimpses, perhaps make some assumptions. Mostly, we witness what they do, how they do it, and how they treat each other. We are with them in the moment, and in that moment, in no small part due to Bonello’s sensual filmmaking, they certainly are sad and sympathetic. —Daniel Kasman
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Daniel Kasman and Blake Williams, who praises Nocturama in the latest issue of Cinema Scope, sat down with Bertrand Bonello to discuss his new film.

NOTEBOOK:  I know there were some rumors that your film would be in Cannes, which ultimately did not select it. Now it's been theatrically released in France. What's your perception of the conversation surrounding the film back at home?
BERTRAND BONELLO:  The press reviews were very, very good—most of them, with three or four very bad, but mostly very good. Then, there started to be a very violent debate between people. The film has been released now 10 days ago and these debates really continue—I saw that on the Internet this morning. But I think it's interesting, you know? People take the film, they take ownership of the picture. The film isn't mine any more, you know? But it's quite passionate, yes.
NOTEBOOK:  Do you feel like that "taking ownership" is due to the film's degree of abstraction? In the sense that you're not specifying motivation or ideology of the attackers, and therefore it's a more open film?
BONELLO:  Yeah, there are many subjects [being debated] and this is one of them. Another is: "Are you allowed to do that?" The moral responsibility of an artist—stuff like that. These are big debates over the film.
NOTEBOOK:  The logistics of planning such a film—especially in the first half where so much of it takes place in the city itself and the subway system—it's very clear you had a lot of cooperation from Paris and its infrastructure. Especially since so much of the film went into production after Charlie Hebdo happened, I'm curious how this cooperation was negotiated and about the tensions that were present.
BONELLO:  In fact, for example, in the Metro, there's nothing violent happening. There's just people traveling, taking the Metro—so that's okay. The most difficult thing was the explosion of the car, because it's really in the center of Paris. For this, we had the help of the city. I think everybody understood the project. You have to be a little careful with neighbors and stuff, just to make people understand that this is not real. Otherwise, the violent stuff happens inside the store and that's okay. No, no—it was easier than I thought, to get authorizations.
NOTEBOOK:  I wanted to ask a bit about the structure of time in the film. One of the most marvelous things about Nocturama is that it seems to take place in real time, and not only in real time but also almost in contiguous space. You're following everyone in long steadicam shots through the Metro, through offices, through the store—we have a great spatial sense of continuity. And yet, you're constantly stepping in and breaking that continuity in time, stepping back, going forward, stepping back, changing the viewpoint. Was this always part of the original conception of the story?
BONELLO:  Yes, everything was written. Very precisely. It's what took me the most time in the writing. Basically, you have three relationships with time. The first part is a work on simultaneity and precision, trying to find some tension there. When you think you understand it, you stop the film, you go to a flashback, you go back—always to create some tension and attention. The second part, time stops, in a way—after the explosions. Because they have to wait. Trying to find some tension with the time that stops. In the third part, time explodes. Because it's late at night and I wanted to be very precise in terms of geography and to show that it reflects the tiredness that happens in the heads of the kids. But all this is very, very written.
NOTEBOOK:  You move through time in a similar way in House of Tolerance and in Saint Laurent: this kind of moving back and forth, sometimes when you go back it's unclear whether we're seeing something happening again or if it's just a similar re-iteration of the event. So I tend to think of your last three movies as a kind of modernist triptych. Did you conceive of them as a kind of trilogy?
BONELLO:  Yeah. When I did this one, for me it was not obvious. But when I finished it, it was obvious. Because one takes place in 1900, and in a way it shows the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. The other one takes place...for me, it's like the end of the 70s and beginning of the 80s, which is a very important turning point in terms of politics, economics, aesthetics and everything. And this one is also the end of a period, in a way, and the beginning of what we live in now. So, yes, they follow in order, in chronological order, but I think they are a kind of triptych. It's not on purpose.
NOTEBOOK:  Can you imagine going into the future for your next film?
BONELLO:  [laughs] Why not! I don't know what my future will be, but it's not impossible.
NOTEBOOK:  Many if not all of these children are non-professional actors?
BONELLO:  Yeah. And even the professionals are so young that they had, like, one experience.
NOTEBOOK:  How did you work with them on the set, working on their characters? They are characters about which you give us a little bit, but not so much. It's such a process oriented film, a film about what they do, and about waiting and being. Did you talk to them about who their characters were supposed to be, or more about what the action was in the moment?
BONELLO:  The action. I don't want to put in your head too many clues. But to be quite precise: take two seconds, do this, do that, do that. And for the characters, I wrote some stuff—I agree without a lot of background—but some precise stuff, and for me this is 50% of the character. The other 50% is who you choose, you know? If you choose him rather than him. These kids they arrive with a lot. They arrive with themselves. Their way of talking, their face, the way they walk. For me, this brings 50% of the character, this incarnation, the embodiment. I wanted to respect who they were, also. Not to twist them too much.
NOTEBOOK:  I was very moved by the group dynamic, because it was never quite clear to me why they were together, but I sensed a real camaraderie or a unity, even if not everyone was close. They all seemed to come together in a moment. What do you see as the thing that holds these kids together—kids of different backgrounds, different races, different classes?
BONELLO:  Yeah—and probably different reasons to do this. But a kind of common anger. For different reasons. Maybe this sounds like something more relevant to a statement, but that's something that was really dear to me.
NOTEBOOK:  In the first half of the movie, when they are engaging with this action, this plan of setting out the bombs and sending messages on their cell phones to one another, what sort of research did you do in order to be faithful to how this would actually play out?
BONELLO:  I've done some research on very practical stuff. How to enter a tower. For example, when the guy says "this semtex has been stolen four years ago"—this is true. A lot of very, very ultra-realistic details. From this, I make the rest up. I wanted the film to be a mix of ultra-realism and abstraction. All my work is to find a good equilibrium at every moment, in fact.
NOTEBOOK:  Thinking about this relationship between realism and abstraction, and going back to the idea of this film and Saint Laurent and House of Tolerance being a kind of trilogy, it seems like all three are informed by a history of art, especially modern art and postmodern art. You have images that evoke Toulouse-Lautrec in House of Tolerance, then Mondrian with the split screen in Saint Laurent, as well as of course the engagement with Warhol. I'm wondering how you view your films in relationship to art history.
BONELLO:  When I start to write a script I do a kind of file—a mood board. I start to write a scene and every image that I can find, I put it inside. All my work is to put order to these images. Sometimes, when you start noting the records of certain items, and it starts giving an artistic glow to the picture that I will give it.
NOTEBOOK:  Are you putting in certain reference points, certain works or artists?
BONELLO:  Consciously? Often it's unconscious.
NOTEBOOK:  Speaking of writing, you write a lot of your own music for your films, including for Nocturama. Are you thinking about music as you're writing, do you have music you've already written in your head that you write to?
BONELLO:  No, it's when I write. I am really thinking through the texture of what I need in a sequence for the film. The sound of the film. I have a little studio at home, and I go from my desk to the studio and try to see if they work harmoniously together.
NOTEBOOK:  So it's sort of inseparable, your script writing and your music composition?
BONELLO:  Yes, it's side-by-side work. Because I like the idea that music says something. Like a dialog, for example. So it's part of the writing.
NOTEBOOK:  Do you get ideas from listening to music? Or does the music come out of your writing?
BONELLO:  No, sometimes it really comes together at the same time. You have the sound and the image and you have to work with it. It's difficult to say how an idea comes, but sometimes it comes together.
NOTEBOOK:  How did you decide on the targets the kids were attacking? I imagine it was tricky to want to choose actions that have meaning in the film and in the real world, but ones that wouldn't necessarily be charged with too much meaning to specify what they're doing and peg them to a certain motivation.
BONELLO:  It was obvious there should be something political, so I chose the Ministry of the Interior. Because for young people it's something very oppressive, because it's the police and the army and stuff like that. I really wanted something related to the financial powers. And then I really wanted a strong image. And for us, it's Joan of Arc, because it's become a symbol of the extreme right wing in France.
NOTEBOOK:  Was it difficult to actually use that statue in the film? I imagine you didn't actually set it on fire.
BONELLO:  We said to the city, "can we do a shot here? She's going pretend to clean it." We put some stuff on her cloth, and then we had the statue re-built and put a fire on a greenscreen and [slaps his hands] put the two images together.
NOTEBOOK:  When you move to the second half of the film, to the luxury department store, the tone shifts to something more eerie, maybe something closer to a horror or genre film. What was your engagement with genre cinema while making this movie?
BONELLO:  It's cinema that I was really watching a lot of when I was 12 or 13, the beginning of the 1980s. All the Cronenberg, Romero and Carpenter films. It's part of my relationship with cinema—strongly. I really wanted the film to go sometimes in this direction. Not totally, but to use it. I also wanted this to be a terror picture, a terrifying picture. We use terror in many ways.
NOTEBOOK:  I was surprised at the specter of...I'm not sure what you'd call them, in the U.S. we call them the S.W.A.T. team—those special police who raid the store at the end. Those figures to me were a total abstract terror: the silence, the methodicalness. It wasn't an action picture ending. It was spectral.
BONELLO:  That was probably the most realistic part of the film. When you see the structure of the building, it's an eight-story building, so it's the most realistic way for them to enter, and the strategy is actually called the "hammer and the anvil." They come from the top and from the bottom, very, very, very slowly. Because they don't know what they're going to find. I worked with an ex-guy from these special forces, a specialist of terrorism.
NOTEBOOK:  In the second half, when they're stuck inside, the kids play around quite a bit: trying on costumes, they try new personas, they sing, they dance. Do you see the first half of the film, the free half, as a kind of "play" as well? That they see their action as a kind of play?
BONELLO:  There's a journalist who wrote something in France that I really liked. He said that this movie treats its subject as something that is really important but at the same time treats it as a children's game. And I like this approach of the film; I didn't think this way, but...
NOTEBOOK:  Indeed, for in the first part, before certain hints come in, the kids could be just having fun in the Metro, jumping the stiles—playing a game.
BONELLO:  Yeah, they are very serious, in a way, but they are really lost, also. I like the idea that the second part comes to counteract this first part. It brings an ambiguity to the film, which I think is necessary.
NOTEBOOK:  To go back to the building, the leveling of it: it's a very vertical space. How much of the mise en scène did you envision during the writing process and how much did you work on it visually?
BONELLO:  A lot—a lot of it was written. Then, as we shot there for six weeks, I had the chance to be able to be alone all the weekends in the building, to really think about the different points of view, the camera movements, to be very, very precise. Because the change of points of view are so complicated. I had a chance to live in this space—alone, you know? It was very freaky [laughs]. It's a horrible place.
NOTEBOOK:  So the building is not actively in use?
BONELLO:  No, no, no—it's an old store which is very empty and we built everything inside it. And we re-built exactly the way I wanted to do it.
NOTEBOOK:  You came up with the idea of the huge mirror at the top of the staircase which so crazily distorted perspective?
BONELLO:  Yes. In some stuff, we were working with the set decorator, little details. We had the chance to do the store exactly how we envisioned it for the film.
NOTEBOOK:  You said you were plotting out the points of view. I imagine you almost had to chart out, "okay right now, these three people are on the second level, these people are on the first level; he needs to go up to see her, she needs to look down..." It almost necessitates a diagram.
BONELLO:  Exactly. I have on my computer a kind of board and it took us four or five days to fill out the board: "okay, 3:45, him here, him here, her here; he can see her, he cannot." [laughs] It was mathematical stuff, but the most difficult thing was to do the board, and after, we followed it like a rule.
NOTEBOOK:  Following up on the question of permissions, I was horrified but pleased to see so many of these luxury brands decided that you could use them in your movie. I feel like in the States no brand would ever want to be associated with a film like this. It was very realistic—but also surrealistic for me to encounter.
BONELLO:  For me it was very important to have real brands. It's something when you see a Chanel or stuff like that. We asked 500 people, and 180 said "yes," so they're all in the store.
NOTEBOOK:  Let's end on the cat. Can you tell me about the film's cat?
BONELLO:  Elvis! It's not pregnant, it's just fat [laughs]. I wanted the idea that there is an opening in the ceiling...and first you see the cat...and then you see the police.

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