Bertrand Bonello stuns with this coolly exacting, lightly experimental take on the impulse modern terrorism.
The new feature by French director Bertrand Bonello made headlines long before its premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Its basic premise of young people planning a bomb attack in Paris was deemed too hot in a climate where the period between terrorist attacks on French city were getting shorter and shorter. Yet while this trigger warning is understandable, it nonetheless comes from a misunderstanding of the film’s particular – and particularly graceful – argument.
Throughout the film, the teenagers never discuss the exact motivation behind their attacks. In fact, they barely talk at all. Yet their deafening silence is revelatory in itself, speaking of a general, suffocating malaise in the Parisian air. With immaculate subtlety, Bonello portrays this tension found in the eerie solitude in present tense Paris as nudging these kids into action.
Suspense builds up as they attempt to bring the city’s anxiety to its paroxysm without succumbing to it themselves. The director finds formal ways to further immerse the audience in this heart-stopping adventure. Echoing his 2011 breakthrough feature, House of Tolerance, Bonello again manipulates the chronology and perspective of events, and does so without warning but always with coherence. Flashbacks to the early stages of the enterprise appear only late in the film, and while they reveal little about the operation itself, their sudden inclusion feels like a burst of real life for these characters, giving them a palpable sense of normality before that fateful day.
Such powerful sensations also spring from Bonello’s masterful and unapologetic use of multiple viewpoints to accentuate the spectacular elements of certain moments. He repeats scenes of explosions – but more originally and shockingly, brutal shootings – multiple times in quick succession, and from various angles. He comes close to the bombast of American action films, but adds a layer a feeling often lacking from this exhilarating trope through rich characterisation.
The kids may not have many lines and little is known about them, yet their humanity shines through the actors’ faces. Bonello focuses on only at key moments, and thus avoids cheap dramatisation. The young adults go beyond being a metaphor for the unrest in Paris and France at large because their faces – and in fact their entire bodies – are given space to be fully expressive.
Such closeness with these characters comes into a disturbing relationship with their oblivious yet understandable attraction to the superficial in the film’s second part. From the very beginning, their path is mediated by their mobile phones via the exchange of pictures through texts. It makes their experience virtual, at least to some extent. Their use of technology never seems tacky, as Bonello understands how devices have become almost an extension of the body for young people. In the last segment, however, the artificiality is complete, as the kids have to live in the luxury of a closed shopping mall, the appeal of which they can’t resist.
Trying on expensive clothes, playing music loud and stealing food, the teenagers are enjoying the simple but expensive pleasures of the bourgeoisie life. Rather than wanting to overthrow this economic system and have more equality, they actually only want to be at the top of that pyramid: they want to be bourgeois. David (Finnegan Oldfield) plays the dark knight when dressed in a dashing blue suit. He heads for a wander and observes the city that he has brought to a stand still. Yet his satisfaction – as well as that of his partners in crime – never seems complete. The intensely aggressive pop songs he listens to at the mall or the expensive outfits he can borrow can’t bring him the life his attacks have sucked from Paris.
The cruelty of this situation is what the director makes the audience feel very strongly in the film’s final action-chase sequence. Finding refuge in beautiful things, thoughtlessness and loneliness reveals itself as only a temporary relief and one that ultimately only leads to more detachment and dehumanisation.
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