Interview with Nocturama director Bertrand Bonello

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Bertrand Bonello’s new film, Nocturama, was controversial before it even screened. The fictional tale of Parisian Millennial terrorists, with a vague ideology, was shot before the Paris attacks of November 13, 2015. By the time it was ready to screen, in 2016, it surprisingly did not debut at the Cannes Film Festival, in any category. Instead it had its international premiere at the San Sebastian Film Festival, after a world premiere in Toronto and a French theatrical release. I had a chance to speak to the writer/director, Bertrand Bonello, last year in San Sebastian. -Miriam Bale

 

Miriam Bale: I love the movie. I watched it twice in a row. But the first section, what exactly is it setting up? Does it work? Or are all these places they go, is that a red herring?

Bertrand Bonello: No, it’s very, very precise, in the beginning.

MB: In the beginning?

BB: In the beginning. The Metro travels are all very precise and right. No, I tried to make a kind of ballet. A lot of precision and a kind of ultra-realism, and at the same time something a little abstract. I tried to mix the two. Basically that’s how the whole movie works: between realism and abstraction.

MB: For Paris?

BB: For Paris and for the whole movie. It’s a lot of organization for me, too, to shoot this.

MB: There’s something specific about the stops that they make on the Metro, and those lines? The 13 and the 1?

BB: The 13 goes from the Northern suburbs, and I real wanted to show where the people come from.

MB: Saint-Denis?

BB: Exactly.  And I’m very precise with buildings, where they want to put the bombs, which line you have to take. Also, the Metro is something so anonymous.

MB: Yes, this I felt right away. Everyone’s a stranger?

BB: Exactly, yeah. And you don’t leave any traces. It’s not like taking a car or something. You go under the ground, and then come out of ground, in a way like rats.  (laughs)

MB: Also, the beginning with the map reminds me very much of Le Pont du Nord. With the city as a map and a game, and the paranoia.

BB: Ah! Yes, I really like these works a lot, kind of mysteries in Paris. Games and spying stuff.

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MB: So not a conscious influence but…

BB: No, not a conscious influence, but it’s in our culture, movie culture.

MB: Speaking of the culture, though, is it wrong for me to assume that this movie is more difficult for France than the rest of the world?

BB: I can see that. I guess it’s too close for them. It’s weird that a French director is doing this film, set in Paris, now. Though of course it’s long to make a film so I wrote it like six years ago. Shot it before the attacks of November, but still it’s too close. Geographically and in terms of time. Though it has nothing to do with ISIS or whatever, but there are some common points. Not important, but like the cell phone in the garbage, like what we had on the 13th of November. Or the fact that we had all the attacks at the same time, which was the same thing in November. We’re too fragile in France to receive the film now.

MB: I think so. It seems to be more easily accepted other places.

BB: Yes, because there is a distance. In Toronto, they asked me the actuality and what happened last year, but it was not more than one or two questions. In France, it was a little more difficult to talk about the film.

MB: Did anything change in your editing after the November attacks.

BB: No, I had my first cut already done. But of course we asked a lot of questions, but we didn’t change anything, except the title.

MB: What was the title before?

BB: The title was Paris est une fête.

MB: Paris is a party?

BB: Well, in fact it is the French translation of a Hemingway book, A Moveable Feast. And after the 13th of November, this book became a kind of symbol of people coming together, and everyone was buying the book. Paris est une fête, you know, Let’s stay strong. So of course I had to change. I didn’t want any bridges between my film and what happened.

MB: It’s interesting to me that the title came late. Because it seems very divided between day and night, but the key to the film is the night section.

BB: Yeah, the heart of the film is the second part. But otherwise, no, I didn’t change anything. Because fiction has to stay with fiction. If you want to start to mix fiction with the news, it’s not a good idea. Because news is so fast. So I thought of the film six years ago, and we stuck to the first idea.

MB: It’s difficult I think for people to understand these political films that are so purely fiction.

BB: From what I understand now, it’s difficult for them to take a political film which doesn’t have a discourse. They like it to be very clear: this is black, this is white. If you just make a feature film with no discourse but it has a political meaning, then it’s, “Well what do you mean by that?”

MB: They worry you’re romanticizing terrorism?

BB: Yeah, and empathizing, being to close with the terrorist, this kind of stuff.

MB: I’ve heard the opposite criticism, too, of people saying it’s not political enough. For instance, the second half of the movie, that it’s very superficial. And that you’re very careful to make it different than the attacks we’re familiar with now, with those political aims. But do they miss something in the film? Because you have that scene where he shoots the security guard, who then asks why. “I don’t know,” he answers. And that to me is so key for the film.

BB: Yeah, I think so. And it’s not superficial, it’s that these kids, they’re a little lost. They destroy symbols of capitalism and then they’re going to be destroyed themselves by this store.

MB: By capitalism?

BB: Yes. And I think the world is getting so complex and filled with ambiguity today, so I wanted the characters and the film also showing this ambiguity.

MB: But when I saw it again, to me that’s very political, what people may read as superficial. Because it comes down to economics, and displacement. Do you think so?

BB: Yeah.

MB: I mean, they’re all that age, these [real life] terrorists. I don’t want to say anything that gets you in trouble, but it seems clear that it comes down to this feeling of, this world that this other generation created, it’s out of reach to me, so what have I got to lose.

BB: Yeah, all these terrorist today, they’re very young. And I don’t think they’re very strong in terms of ideology. They’re also lost, in a way. So my idea was not to make bridges with ISIS, but I don’t think I’m wrong doing the film this way.

MB: I agree. And you did the music?

BB: Yes.

MB: And the score works so well with the pop music. Was the score inspired by the pop music? Or did the score influence the pop music selections?

BB: In fact, I create and choose the music during the first draft of the script, really early in the writing process. For example, in the first part, where there’s a lot of score, if I feel I need some music, I leave my office and go in my studio to work on the sound.

MB: Fascinating, while you’re writing?

BB: Yes. And if I want a character to put a song from his ipod or whatever, I really need to find the song to finish writing the scene. It’s really related to me. Writing the music is part of the writing.

 

Nocturama is currently playing in New York at Metrograph and Film Society of Lincoln Center, in San Francisco at The Roxie Theater, and in Milwaukee at The Times Cinema.