“Nocturama” might be an interesting movie about terrorism if there were no such thing as terrorism. If, that is, politically motivated shootings and bombings in big cities were fantastical tropes or metaphorical conceits, like zombie epidemics or extraterrestrial invasions. But perhaps “interesting” is too strong a word. Without a real-world correlative for the actions it depicts, Bertrand Bonello’s new film would merely be tedious and pretentious rather than repellent.
There is no denying that Mr. Bonello, whose previous films include “House of Pleasures” (a prurient peek behind the scenes at an early-20th-century bordello) and “Saint Laurent” (a salacious tour of ’70s couture), possesses cinematic skill and suavity to spare. The story told in “Nocturama” splits neatly into before and after, with a few flashbacks thrown in for clarity and variety. The first half follows a collection of young French people as they prepare to carry out a series of attacks in Paris; the second stays with them in the immediate aftermath, as they kill time in a high-end department store.
Part 1 is fast-moving and suspenseful, Part 2 languorous and luxuriant. The young terrorists are brisk and businesslike until the plastic explosives detonate. Then they act out a parody of jaded consumerist hedonism, browsing among the brand names. Nike, Fendi, Issey Miyake — Mr. Bonello places the products so lovingly in the frame that you might think he was being paid to do it.
Really, though, all he advertises is the vacuity of his imagination, which he mistakes for the moral emptiness of his characters and the society that spawned them. They are not — or not all — drawn from its margins or its oppressed groups. A few of the conspirators (there are eight in all, plus an inside man at the store) seem to be children of immigrants from suburban housing projects. The others come from France’s middle and upper classes. One of the leaders is a student at an elite university, with family connections to the minister of the interior, whose office is among the group’s targets.
Other targets include the chief executive of a bank, a row of parked cars, a gilded equestrian statue and a skyscraper with the word “global” conveniently displayed near its crown. The cause that motivates this violence is never specified. One member of the gang is a Muslim who doesn’t drink alcohol and believes he will be welcomed in paradise as a martyr, but religious extremism doesn’t seem to be part of the overall agenda. Nor does any recognizable political ideology or economic grievance. “It was bound to happen,” a bored-sounding young woman says to a perpetrator who has wandered out for a cigarette.
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