“Nocturama,” Bertrand Bonello’s hypnotically unsettling new movie, has the artful, suggestive symmetry of a Rorschach blot. In the first half, several young Parisians coordinate and execute a series of terrorist attacks over one afternoon. In the second, they hide out for the night in a locked-down shopping mall, where their killer instincts give way to a sudden appetite for luxury brands.
At once an oblique thriller and a cool, mesmerizing provocation, the film dispenses with backstory, motivation and the other dramatic conventions that movies typically use to make meaning, especially on a subject as troubling in its real-world implications as it is here.
But what is the subject of “Nocturama”? Despite the movie’s attention-grabbing log line and its emergence at a state of heightened anxiety across Europe, I’d submit that it isn’t really about terrorism at all. You could say that its chief concern is with its characters’ moral vacuity, the banality of their particular evil. But Bonello’s approach, always seeking to evoke rather than explain, doesn’t allow us either the clarity of analysis or the comforts of condemnation.
That uncertainty may explain the film’s polarizing effect on audiences since it opened in French theaters and began playing at film festivals last fall. Some of this, of course, is due to unfortunate timing: Bonello wrote the script in 2011, long before Al Qaeda gunmen attacked Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters in January 2015, and filmed it in Paris mere months before the Islamic State-backed killings that rocked the city that November.
But in addressing “Nocturama,” we should be particularly careful about confusing it with recent history, whether that means praising it for its uncanny prescience or damning it for deviating from events that Bonello never claimed as inspiration.
The story begins with its characters already in motion, and even those who go in cold will immediately sense, from the furtive precision of their movements and the play of blankness and anxiety on their faces, that something dangerous is afoot. As the cinematographer Léo Hinstin tracks several of them through the labyrinthine tunnels of the Paris Métro, then follows a few others along the upper floors of a skyscraper and the red-carpeted hallways of the Ministry of the Interior, Bonello’s technique exerts a shivery, hypnotic power.
We watch as these good-looking ciphers plant plastic explosives in empty rooms and parked cars, then toss their burner phones in trash cans. One girl, Sabrina (Manal Issa), disguised as a city employee, applies a flammable substance to a bronze sculpture of Joan of Arc, her nervous eyes briefly meeting the statue’s inscrutable gaze.
Occasionally there will be a flashback to the planning stages, allowing us to observe the scale of the operation and the diversity of the participants. With a few exceptions — like Mika (Jamil McCraven), a soft-spoken black youth, and Omar (Rabah Nait Oufella), a brash kid of Middle Eastern descent — most of them are white, including the de facto leader, David (Finnegan Oldfield), and his girlfriend, Sarah (Laure Valentinelli).
Another flashback, in which a university student named André (Martin Petit-Guyot) unpacks his thesis that “civilization is a condition for the downfall of civilization,” is as close as Bonello gets to parsing the nature of their radicalization.
Stalking his characters with sinuous camera movements and split-screen surveillance footage, Bonello turns it into the stuff of a waking nightmare.
By 5:15 p.m., Paris is burning. Having targeted symbols of France’s revolutionary past and globalist future, the terrorists converge at the evacuated mall, where Omar, a security worker, has granted them secret access. It’s here, in this multi-story consumer paradise, that “Nocturama” shakes off its controlled, simmering paranoia and, along with its characters, stirs to a different kind of life.
Like the abandoned mall in George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead,” one of several cinematic allusions in the offing here (Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” is another), this capitalist mecca is at once a wondrous after-hours playground and a hell of a loaded metaphor. Bottles of wine are cracked open; designer bathrobes are tried on. One of the self-styled rebels, Yacine (Hamza Meziani), comes face-to-face with an identically Nike-clad mannequin in the movie’s most startlingly surreal image.
In less assured or idiosyncratic hands, the notion of these killers suddenly transfixed — zombified, even — by Chanel, Fendi and Sonia Rykiel might have played as a cheap satirical dig, a facile reminder of the hypocrisy behind their anti-establishment rage. Stalking his characters with sinuous camera movements and split-screen surveillance footage, Bonello turns it into the stuff of a waking nightmare, complete with the occasional dreamlike apparition drifting into view. Are they specters of the already dead, or omens of the deaths still to come?
The ease with which the director navigates this high-end fantasyland comes as little surprise, considering the druggy, decadent style he brought to bear on his 2015 fashion-world biopic, “Saint Laurent.” But the movie actually feels closer in some ways to his little-seen 2008 feature, “On War,” much of which was set in a rural retreat for young people, who seek escape in a haze of communal self-exploration and slow-motion dancing. There is one brief, hypnotic sequence like that in “Nocturama” (set to the director’s own techno score), whose story and visual style continually evoke the media obsessions of modern youth, effectively trapping the characters in a bubble of their own creation.
Occasionally, some of the conspirators tear themselves away from the mall’s wares to monitor their grim handiwork via a TV news feed, though any real information on the human toll of the attacks is curiously absent. Bored and in need of release, the kids blast Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair” over the mall’s speakers — not the only time the soundtrack will work in impudent counterpoint to the mounting tragedy of the situation.
The grimly attenuated final sequence is at once inevitable and frightening in a way that I’ve never quite seen in a thriller before; it’s as if Bonello, reluctant to either rush his characters toward their fate or grant them a mercy they don’t deserve, decided instead to linger and hold them close. In “Nocturama,” a haunting vision of the world gone beautifully mad, it’s the cruelest, most unsparing possible embrace.
In French with English subtitles
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Playing: Downtown Independent, Los Angeles