Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth?
Ryan Swen Revisits Nocturama

In a perverse twist of thinking borne from cinema’s ability to insinuate itself into the mind, Bertrand Bonello’s films have become almost synonymous with my own critical writing struggle, specifically his 2016 film Nocturama. My obsession with his oeuvre isn't new: when the call for submissions for this symposium was made, Nocturama, about a crew of young terrorists who execute a coordinated series of bombings across Paris and hole up in a high-end shopping mall, immediately sprang to mind, as it’s a film I think about constantly, despite not having seen it in full since 2017. I watched it twice that year, prompting first a cautiously admiring capsule review for Seattle Screen Scene in June, then a full-length, more openly adulatory review for the same publication in September. At the time, I felt compelled to write something more positive, in large part because—even though I had misgivings about what I perceived as cold-bloodedness and caginess with politics—I felt the hypnotic pull of its style needed to be highlighted for the one-night-only Seattle release as much as possible.

Looking back on those reviews, I see that I focused to a pronounced degree upon the reactions of others, perhaps as a way of signaling that I knew and understood the importance of the context around the film: in the capsule, “controversial” is one of the first descriptors; the full review mentions “the curious nature of its reception” and “reactions, praise and criticism alike.” From my viewpoint, this latter grouping mainly relied on the general approbation of critics I was aware of at the time—people like Mike D’Angelo, Blake Williams, Matt Lynch, and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky—in contrast to notable snubs from the Cannes and New York Film Festivals. Inevitably, an enormous amount of influence upon my level of interest in a given film can be traced to the reactions of peoples and institutions such as these, a path of exploration that probably took up more than it should have in my previous thinking about the film.

What I'm interested in now lies in the connective threads between Bonello's films and, in probably an impudent leap in logic, my own writing situation. So hasty was I in past reviews to praise Bonello’s form—disjunctive character perspectives, sinuous Steadicam shots, startling split screens—that I could often lose sight of exactly how his films played out scene-to-scene, how the elegance of his narratives was essential for landing the hammer blows that so often wallop me at the end of any work of his. It’s not that I see myself as being a much more “curious” or observant viewer and writer now; indeed, the marked downturn in film viewing due to other obligations since that time has curtailed some of my more adventurous impulses. But I am more fascinated and fulfilled than I once was in divining how—within already familiar works—the ineffable and sublime are generated by fundamental mechanics, in general and for Bonello specifically.

Broadly, Bonello’s films are usually about outsiders caught in the sweep of their times and the specific traits of their milieus, often anticipating a catastrophe or attempting to live on in the wake of it. Usually, these will happen courtesy of an exterior force: for instance, the maiming of a sex worker in House of Tolerance (2011), the COVID pandemic in Coma (2022), and the various calamities within The Beast (2023). However, Nocturama concerns itself with its protagonists’ direct actions, their aim to deliver a shock to the system, even if their intent is never entirely revealed. This distinction felt salient to my struggle with writer’s block, with their decisive acts registering in unfavorable contrast to my ability to put words on the page. Obviously writing and revising an essay is nowhere near as drastic as the scenarios in his films, but it came in the wake of a series of unfortunate events that each impeded my writing progress, and I’ve tried to seize inspiration from anything that offers it, no matter how incongruous such a comparison may be.


The vagaries of influence don’t stop at film taste: they seep into writing style long before a piece lands in an editor’s inbox. This is especially true when considering how to write an entry in a thematic series of essays. As I churned out countless false starts and thousands of words, I constantly looked back at my predecessors, trying to figure out how they succeeded where I was failing. Should I begin by quoting from one of my own reviews of Nocturama? Should I discuss the particular state I was in when I first encountered the film? Or should I attempt to go down a different path?

This was all compounded by the haunting knowledge of the past versions of what I wanted to convey. After the catastrophic loss of a nearly complete draft and imperfect attempts to reconstruct it, I finally turned in a first draft of this essay back in November. By the time I received a moderate amount of suggested revisions, I had already grown disenchanted with what I had written just weeks before. The symposium had begun, and upon reading through the published pieces—Adam Nayman and Nick Pinkerton questioning their Young Turk days in this publication's infancy (only a few years after my own), Chloe Lizotte evoking her adolescence through the unlikeliest of sources, Julien Allen's exegesis of the ex-Greatest Film of All Time, Jordan Cronk focusing on his own evolving view of Bonello's previous film (grounding it in the rigors of the festival circuit)the challenge of this assignment became far more daunting.

Suddenly, my personal histories and reminiscences about reception seemed dull and meandering, the film analysis felt incomplete, and I felt like my ideas about the anxiety of influence were largely superseded by my editor’s similarly themed essay, which centered on Southland Tales and the latent desire to agree with and understand the differing viewpoints of trusted colleagues and inspirations while also being true to one's own preferences and critical judgment. I poked and prodded at the edits, but the idea of a complete rewrite emerged, a chance at some kind of personal redemption that I couldn't shake. I’ve questioned that inclination countless times in the months that have followed: while the editing process was becoming more and more taxing—each friendly note a brutal reminder of my inadequacies—the prospect of coming up with an entirely different essay with its own potential for failure has been even more painful. But it was necessary for me, because something designed to be personal should not feel false or woefully inadequate.


In my original review of Nocturama, I made a telling error in quoting André (Martin Guyot), a political school student describing his entrance exam strategy to Sarah (Laure Valentinelli): I thought he said that “the existence of capitalism is a precondition for the downfall of capitalism,” but the actual word in the quote was “civilization” itself. I also completely missed the context he couched it in, as the conclusion of a five-step plan for academic success: “In part A, expose the problem and define it. In part B, explain it. In part C, take it to its paroxysm to define the limits. And, in D, suggest a solution. You can add a risky theory too. Something politically incorrect or even unacceptable. Even if they don't like it, they'll want you to fuel the debate.”

In works as ideologically concentrated as Bonello’s, stray comments and glancing actions form an embodied—if not necessarily articulated—political worldview. Bonello isn't making airtight analyses, of course. His approach is much less rigid, and he can be said to be working within three elements of André's essay plan: exposing the problem, by virtue of its consistent demonstration and elaboration across Nocturama; adding a risky theory, via its centering of terrorism and complication of ideology through a cross-class and multi-ethnic group of radicals; and, above all, pressing its limits. This final tendency emerges in sudden outbursts of action or emotion, driven by his characters' fits of total abandon. The bombings themselves are naturally the ultimate example, construed by Adèle Haenel's nameless, passive onlooker in the deserted streets of Paris as an inevitable event, implicitly an outgrowth of the condition of civilization that André proposed.

The thrill of the eruption, of course, is what's so compelling about Bonello, his penchant for coups de cinema often surfacing multiple times within a single film. But it also makes it easy to reduce an assessment of his work to just those moments. Indeed, one of only a few specific scenes that I mentioned in my full review was Yacine’s lip sync in drag to Shirley Bassey's cover of “My Way.” It’s of course a transfixing scene—the fullest expression of blurred, performative identity laced throughout the film—but in my two rewatches in preparation for this piece I found just as much enjoyment in the stray shot of his formation of dolls arranged on the floor, or him playing a few moments of Grand Theft Auto V.

Through such little, privileged snapshots of each group member, it becomes clear that these are not merely interchangeable representations of youth: they register quickly and profoundly as their own separate, realistic characters with their own relationships and predilections. This deep into my history with the film, I have a great affection for all of them, an ardent belief in the sincerity with which Bonello portrays their capacity to love and fear. It certainly doesn't hurt that, seven years on, I’m now roughly the same age as the average member of the group, and better able to appreciate the weird state of suspension induced during one's mid-twenties.


Like these displaced, directionless characters, I feel like I'm at a crossroads with hundreds of possibilities arrayed around me, none especially appealing, and this essay acts as a distilled exemplar of that tendency. If Nocturama is taken to be a film about a political act and its consequences, then it is defined by failure: multiple breakdowns in planning, rapid discovery by and inability to stave off the gendarmerie, and the lack of any passionate civilian response. When I was most stuck on this piece, I tended to view the characters and myself through that lens: noble intentions gone to naught, trapped under the weight of expectations and imposing forebears.

But only partly as motivation to finally write this essay, I started to see things differently. Returning to the civilization/capitalism divide: it’s common to cite the second half of Nocturama as, per my full review, “every member of the crew slowly succumb[ing] to the decadent pleasures of the mall's many products and accoutrements”—to see their behavior as a betrayal of their disruptive ideals. And yet, two elements have turned my thinking on its head. For one, the characters are generally seen in their firmly consumerist ways of living long before they get to the shopping mall; if they are tempted by capitalism, it is a return to form rather than a collapse of a concrete, firmly articulated ideal, an embodiment of the contradictions of civilization under which they (and we) all live. The other rests in an especially resonant bit of casting, especially in relation to the wide cast of newcomers: Hermine Karaghuez, a key performer for Jacques Rivette—one of cinema's greatest masters at both paranoia and play—as one member of the unhoused couple that David (Finnegan Oldfield) impulsively invites into the mall. An underdiscussed strength of Bonello’s is his ability to craft character dynamics that wouldn't be out of place in a hangout movie. The easy belief in a friendship bond is central to his ensemble-heavy films, like Nocturama and House of Tolerance, and also was a key aspect of Rivette's cinema. Whether in the upbeat feminist celebration of Céline and Julie Go Boating or the pessimistic dissolution of Out 1, Rivette always found ways to foster and evolve these connections.

If I locate a certain Rivettian spirit in Nocturama, focusing on the mall as a space of possibility instead of a trap (both moral and mortal) and on the beauty of the group dynamics, then a much less cynical, more tragic portrait emerges, even beyond the sight of so much youth gone to ruin. Through the course of their travels through the mall, they avail themselves of many costly goods and services for free: beautiful clothes, great food, a booming audio system, an uninhibited go-kart ride. They consume without directly contributing to the capitalist system, free from the rules normally governing the way things are run. The mall thus becomes their bubble, which, while doomed to burst, is not lacking in meaning or personal fulfillment, and seeing their potential and the utopia-for-a-night come to a violent end is heartbreaking. For all the destruction and tragedy in his films, Bonello’s body of work has increasingly become a tonic for me, a dependable atmosphere to sink into when nothing outside seems to be going in the right direction.


Once again, in the unlikeliest of ways, a motif of Bonello’s wormed into my writing: his penchant for achronology, demonstrated forcefully in Nocturama's multiple-perspective rendering of continuous action. After I sent in the initial draft of this rewrite, my editor suggested a radical restructuring, more freely intermingling film-related musings with my writing travails. The result is something which hopefully feels disorienting yet logical, discursive yet evocative of the haze in which we all live, a twilight zone that Bonello so vividly realizes. He bookends Coma with two addresses to his daughter, to whom he had dedicated Nocturama, released when she was roughly half the age of the film’s characters. At that film's close, he describes COVID lockdown as a kind of limbo, which at its root means “a blank space waiting to be filled. In the center, there is no space. It is in limbo that you'll see things impossible to see elsewhere... and that is the moment when one attains poetry, that which we shall need when a new day dawns.” At long last, I emerge out of the suspension of the writing and editing process, a time of not knowing when these thoughts which are so dear to me might be seen. But I'll gladly keep returning to the glorious limbo of Nocturama, observing those impossible dreams of change and hoping for a new day in the wider world.