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Bertrand Bonello • Director

"A film that’s full of tension to broach the subject of tension"


- French filmmaker Bertrand Bonello deciphers his new film, Nocturama, and explains the freedom of an artist with regard to sensitive subjects

Bertrand Bonello  • Director

This summer in Paris, at the offices of his international seller and French distributor Wild Bunch, we caught up with Bertrand Bonello to talk about Nocturama [+see also:
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interview: Bertrand Bonello
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, which is slated for release in French theatres on 31 August and will subsequently be shown in competition at Toronto and San Sebastián.

Cineuropa: Where did the idea for Nocturama come from?
Bertrand Bonello: I wanted to make a very contemporary film because at the time, I was working on a period film (House of Tolerance [+see also:
film review
interview: Adèle Haenel
film profile
). And when I started thinking about modern-day society, and what that stirs in me, I thought of terrorism. The first image that came to me was of something exploding, and what becomes before and after the explosion. And then I thought about the tension in Paris, which you can almost smell in the air. And as I thought about it, I hit upon a way of portraying it on the big screen.

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Did you want to make a film about youth, the period that immediately follows adolescence? After all, you could have had older terrorist characters.
As soon as I did the screen tests with these 27-28-year-old actors, which is still young after all, I saw that it made a different. The age was really important, and not for intellectual reasons. It’s an age when people still have a lot of utopian dreams, naivety, energy and desire.

The plot centres around the ‘how’ of terrorist acts, and not on the ‘why’. Was that to deliberately avoid the question of ‘why’
No, it wasn’t a sidestep, because I also wanted to make a film full of tension to broach the subject of tension, to go straight for the acts themselves. I thought it would make the audience a lot more focused on the action, and keep them in the moment. I think the why is relatively clear in places, and it didn’t seem like something I needed to linger on.

Two brief and very elliptical flashbacks nevertheless help us to see what the characters have in common, and there are a few hints that touch upon the why.
I didn’t want to make the film completely abstract. These flashbacks also enabled me, in the first half of the film in which the characters are all isolated, to break down their isolation to some extent, and to explain how a kid from Gennevilliers can be waiting tables in a cafe next to Sciences Po and meet someone, how a conversation can blossom between them and how those two people can end up joining forces. These small details are more impressionist than they are discursive or explanatory.

Did you have any specific sources of inspiration in the way of genre film?
I always do, but two or three days before filming started, I showed the crew and the actors Elephant by Alan Clark. I got the impression that it really spoke to them, about how you can get a lot across through actions.

The film has two very different parts in terms of rhythm.
There came a point when I said to myself: they act, and then they wait. How can you create tension in the period of waiting too? By cutting them off from the outside world, for one. When I was drafting the screenplay, the idea for the department store in the second part of the film came to me immediately. It was one of the most important elements of the film, a type of abstract world which is ‘perfect’, or which tries to sell itself as perfect to us anyway, in which the characters would be all alone. I wanted to use this group of youths to recreate this kind of micro-society.

Was this strong contrast between the two parts of the film something that was planned right from the start of the project?
Yes, as soon as I started writing. At any rate, I really like getting some sort of contrast into my films, whatever they’re about. I think it gives the film more depth, and pulls the viewer in even further. It’s something I’ve been focusing on particularly in my last three or four films, whether that’s in the editing, the music or the plot. Here, there comes a point when the first part of the film, which is very dynamic, ends and the characters come back together. For the second part, I also drew on westerns, with the idea of the waiting and gradually being surrounded.

Did the structure of the film change much during the editing, with particular regard to the first part?
The editing very much stayed faithful to the writing. Everything you see is in the screenplay, including the flashbacks, the split screen shots, the moments when we go back in time, etc.

Incidentally, the use of split screen is becoming something of a speciality of yours
I will stop using it at some point (laugh). But in the three films that I’ve already used it in, it’s there for very specific and different reasons. What I like is that it rouses the audience.

Ever since On War [+see also:
film review
film profile
, I’ve had the impression that you’re interested specifically in the micro-societies that are marginalised but nonetheless lie at the heart of society.
Indeed, that’s definitely the case for my last four films, and in very different ways. How can you recreate a world within this world and how can that world not exist in the real world. Saint Laurent [+see also:
film review
Q&A: Bertrand Bonello
film profile
may be about a very rich man, but it ends in imprisonment and a break with reality.

Nocturama is bound to spark controversy and it will probably be interpreted in ways that you never intended. How much freedom do artists have when it comes to broaching such sensitive modern-day subjects?
I think that artists have infinite freedom and that it’s up to them to reflect on things intelligently. I don’t really like doing it, but I’m going to quote Godard here, as some of the things he said were brilliant: "the problem is not to make political films, but to make films politically". At any given moment, morals come into play in your work, and you have to think carefully about where you put the camera and how long a shot is going to last. With this rigour and whilst you have it, I think you have all the freedom in the world. 

(Translated from French)

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