Though the official opening night film is the big-budget Hollywood remake of “The Magnificent Seven” starring Denzel Washington, there are actually many other movies also screening Thursday at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Among them is the international premiere of French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello’s “Nocturama,” which has already garnered much attention and controversy. Through its story of simultaneous bombing attacks around Paris has a ripped-from-the-headlines sense of urgency, Bonello pointedly avoids speech-making, polemics or easy answers.
Rather, the film creates a hypnotic, trance-like atmosphere to build a disorienting sense of momentum as viewers follow a group of young people moving through the streets and Metro of Paris, gradually getting a sense of their connection and common purpose.
In what he said was his first interview on the film in English, Bonello recently spoke from Paris ahead of the picture’s appearance in Toronto.
“I really wanted to do an action movie, even a genre movie, to tell the story through the gesture, through the movement, much more than the words,” he said. “The words, I can imagine them very well, and I guess the audience can also.”
“Nocturama” arrives after a wave of terrorist attacks in Europe, and in France in particular, most notably the simultaneous attacks in November at the Bataclan theater and other targets. The film was shot in summer 2015, and by the time of the Paris attacks, Bonello already had a first cut of the movie. He stopped work for a few days and consulted with his producers on how to move forward. They decided to continue as planned.
Despite its similarities to ongoing events, in its structure, storytelling and thematic strategies, the film lives on its own. As the TIFF program note says, “Bonello has addressed the radicalization of 21st-century youth in a profound and unprecedented way.” The young radicals in the movie are purposefully a mix of classes, ethnicities and genders.
“I didn’t want to point at one specific neighborhood or kind of social background. What I was after was describing the common feeling among the youth,” Bonello said.
Bonello first wrote the script for what would become “Nocturama” in 2010, when he was working on the film that would be released in the U.S. as “House of Pleasures,” set in a brothel at the end of the 19th century.
“I was a little scared to be out of my time,” he said. “So I said to myself, ‘I have to go back to a contemporary film just after that.’ And my feeling of the contemporary time was basically this, the thing I had in my mind was something so tense that it would explode. It’s just a feeling, it’s not theoretical stuff, it’s just what you feel when you go out in the street or when you open the paper.”
But then, as he began moving forward on the project after “House of Pleasures,” Bonello got the chance to make a biopic about fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, which resulted in the 2014 film “Saint Laurent,” selected as France’s submission for the foreign language Academy Award.
Both “Saint Laurent” and “House of Pleasures” played as part of the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival, and though “Nocturama” was presented to the selection committee for this year’s festival, it was not chosen to screen there. (“I can understand,” Bonello said of the decision.)
The film is playing in Toronto as part of the juried competition section known as Platform and comes into the festival looking for U.S. distribution. “Nocturama” opened Aug. 31 in France, where it was met with largely positive reviews, but was, according to the French cultural magazine Les Inrockuptibles, something of a disappointment at the box office, pulling in fewer viewers than Bonello’s previous two films.
“I wasn’t expecting a huge success,” Bonello said. “Of course, it’s a tricky subject. The film is doing all right. It’s not huge, but it’s all right.”
Though the kids of “Nocturama” may seem unnervingly apolitical, and they are not given to spouting theoretical ideals, they are keenly aware of their world. Bonello, who was born in 1968, noted that young people today face much different social and political landscapes than those encountered by the youth of the 1960s.
“Of course, it’s different, that’s why it’s a complicated question,” Bonello said of the distinction between earlier youth movements and those today. “Now, the world is much more complex, and there’s a lot of ambiguity. So it’s the same in the heads of these kids. For me, I really hope that in the film, the ambiguity you see is a reflection of the ambiguity of the world around us. The world itself is not as clear as it was 45 years ago.”
Bonello’s earliest conception of the film included showing the characters outside in the world before their attack, but then trapped in some interior world after. And so they hide out after hours in a department store, hoping for the night to pass.
The store scenes were shot in the enormous disused La Samaritaine complex in Paris, though a different section than was seen in Leos Carax’s 2012 film “Holy Motors.”
As they wait, the young radicals seem to be swallowed back up by the consumer culture they are attempting to break free from. They try on dresses and suits, enjoy luxury food and wine and notice that some of the mannequins are dressed as they already are. There is something of an unexpected showstopper as one of the boys lip-syncs to Shirley Bassey’s rendition of “My Way” on one of the store’s grand staircases.
“It’s like putting your characters inside a re-creation of the world inside the world,” Bonello said of the film’s structural shift. “Like a fake, virtual world that everybody has been telling us has been perfect, inside of an outside world which would be imperfect.
“For me, when they are inside the store, they are entering a horror film.”
At one point, one of the conspirators slips out to walk the streets, eerily quiet in the aftermath of their attack. He comes across a young woman on a bicycle (played by Adèle Haenel, a rising star in France), and in the film’s only overt nod toward a thesis statement, she tells him, “It had to happen.”
“In a way, it’s me talking through her,” Bonello acknowledged. “The basis for the film was in my feeling that something is going to happen, it has to happen. And I really wanted that feeling throughout the film, and for one of the characters to hear that.”
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