For the majority of its running time, Parisian-set Nocturama (2016) is governed by a sickening sense of prevalence and realism, its subject matter horrifyingly similar to events that took place last year in the city. A story about capitalism, politics and the need for change, it follows a group of disillusioned teenagers sick of their society and how it’s run, and who plan to right these wrongs in the most extreme of ways. Beyond this startling concept though, Nocturama is sadly lacking something to make it truly interesting.
Writer-director Bertrand Bonello uses an intriguing opening to set up his story, the teens mutely walking the streets of Paris, constantly checking the time, making their way into various buildings, and meeting up with each other but saying nothing. This almost dialogue-free introduction draws us in immediately, our curiosity peaked by what these strange behaviours could be potentially leading up to. However that fascination is soon replaced by frustration when this sequence is dragged out for nearly half an hour, Nocturama’s glacial pace nearly slowing to a stop rather than building much-needed tension in these opening moments. Even Bonello’s idea to repeat certain scenes from different character’s viewpoints (à la Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003)) isn’t enough to generate excitement here, and is instead a method that seems suspiciously like fodder to plug the gaps in the story – narrative holes that Nocturama has in abundance.
The viewer’s interest is only really regained when Bonello jumps back in time to properly introduce these characters and to what they intend to do, a reveal which at least gives the present storyline an element of sudden danger when we return to it…and when their plan reaches a few inevitable problems. Yet the remainder of Nocturama goes beyond this attack, Bonello playing the rest of the plot out within an empty department store – a place the teens have decided to hide in while the world is going to hell outside. This location not only adds a bit of excitement to proceedings because of the change of scenery, it also serves as a metaphor for the central themes that drive Bonello’s script: capitalism and consumerism. With overpriced products in extravagant displays begging to be bought, the mall is the very place that represents a world obsessed with money and consuming without thinking. It is one of the systems the kids set out to destroy, but now here in a place where no-one can stop them, they can’t help being drawn in themselves and trying out the things they could never afford by normal means.
This thought-provoking, interesting idea is sadly not expanded on any further than this though, Bonello filling up the remaining running time with repeated flimsy messages on the subject before it feels as if we’re being hit about the head with them. The silent walking that dominates the first half of the film returns here too, the teens walking around the shop doing nothing in particular. While this is a device used by Bonello to compare and contrast their behaviour – while in the beginning they were focused, now they are aimless slaves to the system they tried to break – it does nothing to assuage our boredom, the film meandering slowly towards a conclusion that is predictable and very welcome when it finally comes around.
Bonello’s script contains some good ideas on points such as capitalism, consumerism and so on, but onscreen he lacks conviction to fully form these concepts or to deliver them in an interesting, involving way. The result is a dull, frustrating watch that is drowning in metaphors, and a glacial pace that will lose your attention before the plot even really begins.
A promising idea badly executed, Nocturama can occasionally be intriguing, but for the majority is an uninspired let-down.