by Andreas Petrossiants
If Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent (2014) is a bourgeois wet dream drowned in champagne, acid tabs, and couture, then his latest, Nocturama, is instead a metropolitan nightmare, populated by (militant) millennials to the tune of sub-bass electronic music and Chief Keef. His displacement of the “real” in both films — the life of a tortured celebrity/mythical figure in the former, and the tragically familiar coordinated violence of our present moment in the latter — are composed in a similar aesthetic: sexy, elegant, and meticulously choreographed. Nocturama follows a group of young Parisian terrorists of varying ages, genders, and ethnicities — described by Aliza Ma in a recent Film Comment podcast as a “United Colors of Benetton” cohort — as they complete preparations on a multi-site attack in Paris, carry it out, and then hide away overnight in a high-end mall. Bonello began writing the film six years ago. During production, attacks at the headquarters of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine shook Paris, and it was during postproduction that the November 2015 attacks in Paris killed 130 people and injured hundreds of others. Given this context, the film was seen under vastly different circumstances when it first screened in Paris in 2016, and when I saw the film in New York in August 2017. The original title, Paris est un fête (Paris is a Party), had to be changed — Nocturama was borrowed from a Nick Cave album.
At Metrograph in New York, the film’s screening posed a concrete risk for Bonello and for the viewer. How does one make a film about the ubiquitous violence that has become tragic and expected in the 21st century without depoliticizing at least one of the multiple discourses that constitute it, and without sensationalizing/normalizing its occurrence; and how does one watch or discuss such a film? Bonello attempts to reply to this question by making those discourses and politics a mystery, leaving us with more queries than we might have had previously, fostering an internal dialogue that may or may not lead to any resolution, but that surely avoids any sort of normalcy. The film leaves you shocked and in pain, a state of existential exasperation and despondence.
A politics of the “real” is conspicuously missing. This is the case in Saint Laurent as well, in which Bonello sculpts the success, debauchery, and decline of fashion’s Andy Warhol-esque figure. Early in the film, the “master’s” work is paraded down an opulent staircase on equally opulent models as archival footage in a split screen displays the stark temporal context: the Vietnam war, the events of May 1968, and mass rejection of the system Yves Saint Laurent thrives within and contributes to. But that is the last we see of the world’s injustices outside of the fashion house — apart from a quick glance towards the AIDS crisis which is framed through the protagonist’s fading memory, rather than as the loss of a lover and the irresponsiveness and cruelty of governments as the crisis destroyed communities and lives.
Decadence, as we are aware, is the real “silent” killer of empires and of so-called “civilizations” — presently in this context, a term that stands-in for accepted Western norms, etiquette(s), and hegemonic structures. The ruinous consequences of such gilded excess are often overshadowed by the violence or power struggles that emanate from it, something Bonello casually mocks in Saint Laurent, but which comes to the fore in Nocturama. For a history of this “moral or cultural decline,” as the built-in Apple dictionary defines “decadence,” see: the fall of the Roman Empire, and more recently the crumblings of the 20th century American imperialist empire in the 21st, as excess, overconsumption, and gross inequality are met with complacency, violence, turmoil, reactionary politics coupled with neoliberal economic entrenchment, further oppression, and scapegoating.
Nocturama is surely a rumination on such excess, though it clearly doesn’t shy away from the violent episodes that characterize our moment. Divided into two main sections, the film begins with multiple interspersed story lines. Clearly taking note from Alan Clarke’s Elephant (1989), the first scenes individually follows members of the group, some just entering their teens and others already thoroughly disenfranchised members of the work force. They prowl the streets and underground metro stations of Paris, and as the film begins they are already most of the way through planning the attacks.
Most frightening, and engrossing, is that there is no indication in the film’s dialogue (apart from some contrived teenage discussion of “capital” and the French Revolution) to the politics of the group. One character — white, male, educated, elitist, and bourgeois—lectures his associate, who happens to be none of those things: “What comes after decadence?” The answer is “rebirth.” This sort of feigned quasi-spiritualistic justification for the necessity of violence is clearly invoked by Bonello to point to the ubiquity of certain forms of language and discourse that contribute to the so-called “radicalization” of violent attackers, regardless of politics, beliefs, or level of socio-economic alienation. The attacks in the film are void of reason, but replete with trauma, an erosion of innocence, and a cocktail of regret and remorse that will ostensibly be treated with still more excess, and an intensification of the conditions that produce the violence in the first place.
This response is communicated in the second section, after the acts are said and done, accompanied by a roaring soundtrack including Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like,” Willow Smith’s “Whip my Hair,” and Blondie’s “Call Me.” The music is bumped via the massively powerful speakers of the shopping mall as safe house, sprinkled with signs for Fendi and other couture name brands. The terrorists clearly show their age and their era. A group of millennials stuck overnight in a mall without access to their phones play with toys, dress in fancy clothes, eat high-end food, and watch their destruction documented on television screens — a convincing demonstration of the actions and culpability of many in the global north? Rather than painting anymore of the picture that Bonello composes, perhaps we can end with Fernando Pessoa’s brief ruminations on decadence in The Book of Disquiet. “I, along with other people on the fringe kept a distance from things, a distance commonly called decadence.” It is the complete loss of unconsciousness, he writes, “Could it think, the heart would stop beating.”