With his second feature in 2001, The Pornographer, Bertrand Bonello established himself firmly as a writer-director willing to address the hard-hitting subjects. By 2014, with Saint Laurent, Bonello’s distinct style and place in the New French Extremity movement was indisputable. The jarring, unapologetically blasé-about-human-emotions (or lack thereof in the millennial generation) Nocturama is only further proof that Bonello is a master of his craft and genre predilection.
The first scene gives us a bird’s eye view of Paris in all its oppressive infrastructure glory. Rather like the first scene in The Breakfast Club when the oppressive grayness of the high school that five unlikely in their connectedness students will spend nine hours (which would definitely be illegal today) together in appears post-David Bowie quote. In Nocturama‘s case, it’s ten unlikely in their connectedness millennials fed up with being left out by and unable to get ahead in a system they played the rules to a tee to participate in that decide to come together to set off Semtex explosives throughout major points of interest in the City of Light (yes, there’s most definitely elements of Bret Easton Ellis’ Glamorama here as well). With David (Finnegan Oldfield) as their ringleader–the John Bender, if you will–Greg (Vincent Rottiers), Yacine (Hamza Meziani), Sabrina (Manal Issa), André (Martin Petit-Guyot), Mika (Jamil McCraven), Sarah (Laure Valentinelli), Samir (Ilias Le Doré), Omar (Rabah Nait Oufella of Raw) and Fred (Robin Goldbronn) each enact their distinct and integral role to the operation. The final product that is their simultaneous explosions. The specificity of their operation and their function within it makes up for the general vagueness of each character’s background. All we really know is that they’ve all been disaffected and disillusioned in some way from a post-capitalist existence still feigning that capitalism is viable.
The ominousness of that initial shot in Nocturama–all it tells us of the possibility for a terrorist to set his or her explosives on–sets the precedent for the tense mood throughout. Even during so-called moments of “levity,” like when the group is holed up in a department store listening to Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair,” there is a sinisterness to the detachment expressed by everyone involved as they watch the news rehash the carnage they dispensed, all the while more concerned with engaging in the song as Omar marvels, “She was only ten when she recorded this.” This obsession with frivolity, with celebrity and all its trappings (it’s obviously no coincidence that they’re confined to a department store, hub of all facets of capitalist-relishing materialism), Bonello posits, can’t be ideal for promoting any true sense of happiness and satisfaction. And, in truth, every instance of music in the film is like a character unto itself, Bonello’s background as a classical musician permitting him the luxury to compose his own score–with non-original tracks like Shirley Bassey’s “My Way” and Blondie’s “Call Me” adding to the surrealness of the department store scenes. It is, in fact, during the moments when they’re dancing to “Call Me” that conjure a mental crosscut to the library scene in The Breakfast Club when the crew busts out their separate moves to Karla DeVito’s “We Are Not Alone” purely from boredom. The same type of boredom that leads the Nocturama Squad to wreak mass havoc in the first place.
There’s something to be said for the strange feeling of anxiety–a continuous buildup–that sustains itself for the duration of Nocturama, with Bonello exhibiting the same control that each member of the terror troop possessed in planning their destruction. Because this is all they can plan, all that society has allowed for them in terms of making use of their talents, the bourgeois education they went through and the according subsequent search for employment. Undeniably, the scarcity of jobs is a recurring emblem, Greg scrolling through articles about HSBC laying off 50,000 employees being just such an example. And the jobs that there are, well, they only pay about what might as well be two euros an hour for the menial labor that requires all of one’s time and energy. Where’s the purpose in that?
At one point, Greg finds time to write out a letter (how very Brian [Anthony Michael Hall]) in the department store that reads, “I’m ready to die. Do an autopsy on my brain to see if I was mentally deranged.” Then again, what is it to live in the dark times of the twenty-first century if not being anything other than mentally deranged? If you’re not by the time you’re out of high school, then there might be something even more wrong with you than the other twisted psychoses around you. But then, that would be the Centennials we’re talking about, and that’s not the audience Nocturama is speaking to–other than to serve as a cautionary tale.
“Help me,” the final words of the film, are what every millennial is internally screaming. A grimmer update on the slightly more empowered fist bump of Generation X, as represented by John Bender at the closing of John Hughes’ opus. It can be said, then, that the iconic letter from The Breakfast Club would be reworked from this:
Dear Mr. Vernon,
We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. What we did was wrong, but we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think you are. You see us as you want to see us. In the simplest terms. The most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Does that answer your question?
The Breakfast Club
We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice our whole lives only to be saddled with, at best, low-paying jobs that in no way fulfill any of our aspirations. What we did was try at succeeding, mindless though we might seem from behind our screens. But we think you’re crazy to make us live this life without any sign of hope in sight. You made us this way as you’re about to see the wreckage before you. In the simplest terms and most convenient definitions, you have forced us to this state of apathy. And what we found out during our department store sequestering is that each one of us is a basket case. Does that answer your question?
The Nocturama Squad