The cinema of French director Bertrand Bonello transports audiences to a variety of meticulously controlled worlds, each one wildly different from the next. From the velvet-walled turn-of-the-century brothel in House of Pleasures (2011) to the French fashion scene in Saint Laurent (2014), his insular, often surreal settings serve as stages for him to explore the social structures that confine his protagonists. Both stylistically lavish and intellectually adventurous, his films are rich sensory experiences, showcasing his sharp visual sensibility and his talent as a trained musician.
Bonello’s controversial new film Nocturama follows a group of young Parisians who carry out a series of large-scale terror attacks. What begins as a tightly coiled thriller turns into a music-fueled chamber drama as the characters retreat to the glossy late-capitalist mecca of an upscale shopping mall. With the film opening this weekend in New York at the Metrograph and Film Society of Lincoln Center, the latter of which is hosting a series of films that have influenced Bonello, I spoke with the director about what inspires him as an artist and how he blurs the line between realism and abstraction.
What came first in your life, music or cinema?
Definitely music. I started to play the piano when I was five years old, and I had an arrangement where I would just go to school in the morning and do piano in the afternoon. Up to the age of ten or eleven, I was playing a lot of classical music. Then I had a band, and I discovered punk and rock and switched from classical to pop music. So music was always very present in my life. As for cinema, it came in different stages. When I was twelve or thirteen, I was living in a small town. I was so bored, and the arrival of VHS really saved my life. Every Saturday I went to the video club with a couple friends and we would rent four or five films, which were mainly horror films.
Which horror films?
It was around 1980, 1981, so you had the first Cronenbergs, Dario Argento films like Suspiria, all the Romeros, Lucio Fulci—all these directors who were major in the video clubs. Then music took over again and I was a session man playing for people on tour or on records. When I turned twenty-three I started to get a little bored with music, so I decided to switch to movies. But I didn’t know a lot about movies, so I started to get interested in cinema at the same time that I began making films. When I saw Stranger Than Paradise I said to myself, I want to be a director. For me, this film was as good as music.
It’s a jazz riff of a movie.
This director was speaking to me. I discovered afterward that music is very, very important to Jarmusch’s films and his life. It’s almost the beginning of my love for cinema. I guess I will always be faithful to him in that way. I’m also very impressed by the fact that he never tries to be impressive. The decades change, but he doesn’t change. In 2016, when everything’s so quick, he’s making a film like Paterson.
Back to horror for a moment: another director you’ve cited as an influence is John Carpenter. Did you think about Nocturama as a horror movie?
John Carpenter could make political films within the genre. Romero did this too, with Dawn of the Dead, which is also about people who have nothing to do with each other, who have to create a new society to resist something unknown from the outside. You know something’s going to happen, you just don’t know when, so then people have time to wait, and that waiting builds tension.
When you’re writing a film, do you think of it in the same way you think about composing music?
I do both at the same time, in fact. For me, the structure of a film is very, very important and I cannot start to write if I don’t have a clear idea of it. When I start to write, I always try to visualize the film, and I also try to hear the film. If I write a scene and feel I will need some music in it, I start to write the music at the same time or begin to record music in the studio. Usually by the end of a first draft of a script I’ve written or chosen the music.
How did you go about constructing the soundtrack?
Everything is written in the script. The film is in two parts, and I decided that the first part would mainly use the original score and the second part would be as if this mall were a huge jukebox. Every music choice is, of course, mine and not the characters’. I’m not sure they would listen to Blondie, but it’s exactly the atmosphere I needed at that moment. And for the original score I wanted to find a texture that was electronic but not electro-dance, so I worked a lot on my computer to find the right waves.
Does your approach as a musician differ when you’re not making music for a film?
Yes, because good music for a film doesn’t have to be good music. For example, if you take the music from Contempt, it’s very cheesy. But when you put it together with the image, it becomes brilliant. When you make music for a film, the most important thing is not the melodies but the texture. Cronenberg and Howard Shore, that’s how they work; they talk about texture before they start talking about anything else. It’s like talking about what kind of film stock you’re going to use.
How important is the script for you?
You have to work on a script a lot, a lot, a lot—and then it’s nothing. It’s something that has to disappear. It’s not good if you watch a film and see the script. The script has to be as good as possible, because it’s how you get money, actors, etc. It becomes like a bible, very holy, but you have to get rid of it. In terms of structure and time, my films are becoming more precise. A lot of people ask me if a lot of the film is found in the editing room. You always find stuff, but at the same time everything is written beforehand. With Nocturama I had the idea that I would bring the fiction with the mise-en-scène and the actors would bring something closer to documentary, and the film would find an equilibrium between the two.
The balance between realism and abstraction is very evident throughout all of your work. What attracts you to this style?
It attracts me first as a spectator. I love when I watch films that start in a place you know and then bring you to a place you don’t know—a kind of travel. If it’s too abstract, I get lost, and if there’s too much realism, I’m not interested.
House of Pleasures is a good example. It’s a mix of realism and abstraction. The realism is in the chronicle of these girls’ everyday lives—what time they eat, when they wash, etc.—while the abstraction is in the more psychological stuff that emerges little by little.
A common point in House of Pleasures and Nocturama is that each takes place in a location that has no windows. The relationship with the outside world is cut off. The characters create a world that has its own rules and its own aesthetic.
Can you tell me about the decision to shoot digitally for the first time? Was that dictated by the immediacy of the narrative?
There were many reasons. One of them was that I had just made House of Pleasures and Saint Laurent, both period films shot on 35 mm, and I wanted to try something else. I didn’t want to become what everyone thought I would be. For Nocturama, I wanted something sharper, to accept some kind of reality from the outside. But I’m hoping now to go back to 35 mm, which was much easier for me. I think it’s visually more beautiful and you can shoot very quickly. Everybody thinks you can shoot quickly in digital, but you can’t because it’s not so beautiful, so you have to work the shot. With 35 mm, if I took a camera and placed it here now, the shot would immediately be beautiful. For Nocturama, I was happy with the digital, but there is something very sacred about 35 mm. The crew is very concentrated because the film costs a lot of money. When you’re shooting digitally, you have all these screens on the set and nobody’s watching the actors anymore. They’re all in front of TVs, and I hate that.
While you’re writing, are you conceiving the visual world of the film at the same time?
More and more I’ve been making mood books when I start to write a script. They’re very, very important to me. I find things in books or on the Internet, ideas of colors or spaces. Then when you have your script finished you have this huge mood book that you can give to the cinematographer or the set decorator. For me, it’s more and more difficult to write a scene if I don’t have the location in my mind, even the colors of the walls.
So what was in your mood book for Nocturama?
There were a lot of photographs of malls but also pictures of art galleries. I wanted to show the objects in the film as if they were in an art gallery and not a shopping center. There were a lot of pictures of the Metro. I like to spend time searching for these photos, and sometimes you find stuff you really weren’t expecting.
Below, listen to the complete Nocturama soundtrack, featuring selections from Bonello’s score and songs by Blondie, Chief Keef, and others.