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Bonello’s 'Nocturama' hits cinemas in jittery France

Film that was deemed too close to current events for Cannes set to open Toronto’s Platform showcase.

French director Bertrand Bonello’s highly charged and well-received feature Nocturama - about a group of young, anti-establishment revolutionaries who orchestrate a series of symbolic bomb attacks across Paris - opened in France today (Aug 31).

Its release comes as the country and the rest of Europe remains on high alert following a series of deadly terror attacks over the last 18 months by supporters of the so-called Islamic State militant group.

Bonello conceived and wrote a first draft in 2010 while working on his period drama House of Tolerance (L’Apollonide), eventually shooting the production in the summer of 2015.

The project was born out of his desire to make an “ultra contemporary’, genre-style picture - as a counterpoint to House of Tolerance - and also explore an explosive, social tension he had felt in the air in France for some time. 

The spirit of the film and its young protagonists are in no way related to that of Islamic State but its depiction of spectacular attacks in Paris - albeit aimed at perceived symbols of oppression rather than civilians - has still rattled cages at home.  

Although not in the same vein, terror-related tales Made In France and Bastille Day were both pulled from the big screen in France in the light of attacks close to their releases. 

Bonello and producers Edouard Weil and Alice Girard at Rectangle Productions changed the film’s original title of Paris is Happening (Paris est en fete) to Nocturama, following IS attacks on Paris last November. The feature was in post-production at the time.

Its subject matter is also believed to be the main reason why it did not make it into Official Selection at Cannes this year.

Bonello’s recent films Saint Laurent and House of Tolerance were both in Competition and Nocturama was seen as a potential Palme d’Or contender too.

Artistic director Thierry Frémaux reportedly thought the film was strong but decided against showing it at the festival so soon after the attacks in Paris in November and Brussels in April.

Speaking to Screen ahead of today’s release, Bonello said he thought Frémaux had made the right decision.

“Now there have been quite a few press screenings, I’ve noticed that a lot of journalists say they need time to I think about the film. In the end, Thierry made the right decision,” said Bonello.

“At Cannes, the journalists don’t have time. They need to tweet immediately, write immediately, come up with an opinion immediately… It’s been better for the film this way. There’s been more time for the press to digest the film.”

French release

Wild Bunch Distribution (WBD) released the film on 103 screens across France today, following a dozen preview screenings and debates over the summer.

The company has attempted to put the accent on Bonello’s skill as a director rather than the subject-matter.

“We read the script after the Charlie Hebdo attacks and before the events of November. It’s not the subject which drew us to the film but rather Bertrand Bonello’s work which we admire,” explained WDB general director Thierry Lacaze.

“We’re releasing it as a great work by an auteur film-maker. If the spectators want to link it to current events that’s up to them,” he added.

Bonello notes a generational divide in the first responses to the film at the preview screenings.

“For the younger audience members, it worked well. They got the premise of the film. Their questions tended to be about the mise en scene and film-making. The older members of the audience tended to focus on the relationship between the storyline and reality, which was also fine and to be expected,” said Bonello. 

In the lead-up to the release, some 500 posters – showing the silhouettes of the protagonists against a golden Paris nighttime skyline — went up across the French capital in two waves.

A few exhibitors expressed concern about the subject-matter, said Lacaze, but overall most had been supportive of the film.

“When a film this sensitive comes out on 103 screens it’s a sign that the theatres and cinemas are on board and believe in the film,” said Lacaze.

The French media has been overwhelmingly positive about the film, with many critics describing it as the “must-see” film of La Rentrée, France’s traditional return to school and work after the summer break.

International premiere

Bonello added he is curious to see the reaction of audiences at Toronto – where Nocturama will premiere internationally as the opening film of the Platform section on Sept. 8.

Speaking about its selection, TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey told Screen: “Piers [Handling, TIFF CEO] and I were both incredibly impressed by what Bertrand was able to do.“ 

“It plays in part like a procedural but there’s this strong undercurrent with what’s going on right now and the response we’re all having to the political instabilities of our times.”

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