Like a not-so-metaphorical bomb, one of the only truly exceptional films that played at the 43rd Seattle International Film Festival landed in the final weekend. That film was Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama, the controversial and highly touted “thriller” (for lack of a better term) about a group of young terrorists who plan and execute a highly coordinated series of bombings around the City of Light. Bonello more or less eschews a concrete and obvious stab at relevancy – the group’s ideology is almost totally ambiguous, save for a likely anti-capitalist bent – in favor of something much more oblique, frightening, and ultimately powerful.
Bonello, who came to prominence for his acclaimed films House of Tolerance (2011) and Saint Laurent (2014), continues his penchant for stylish and meticulous direction, choreographing both the actual terrorist acts and the second half, a long unraveling of both team and sanity in a massive, labyrinthine department store, with the utmost precision. His Steadicam shots have a genuine sense of motion, snaking through subways and seemingly infinite hallways and watching intently for the slightest change in expression on a character’s face. These faces are key in a way; built from a group of relatively new actors, the diverse ensemble has a freshness and uncertainty about them that fits spectacularly well with the ambiguity about their personas and motives, even being conflated with store mannequins at several points. Nocturama has, as might be expected, a certain sort of cold-blooded brutality to it, but it also has vitality, driven forward relentlessly by a pulsing soundtrack and the vividly clear vision of Bonello.