The Spool / Features
“Nocturama”, Or How Watching A Movie In 2019 is Hell

Streaming services grant unprecedented access to films normally outside the reach of most moviegoers. But can the technical experience of watching them do them a disservice?

Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama probably flew under your radar – it certainly flew under mine. This provocative, brilliant French film only played in a few theaters for a few weeks on release in September 2017 – with no A24 to bolster awareness, the movie didn’t find much of an audience. Sitting down to watch it last week, I didn’t really know what to expect. I remember hearing that a lot of critics I like liked it and that the main characters were, in fact, terrorists.

So I fired up Netflix, where it’s streaming right now. If only it had been that simple. Nocturama opens with a long, dialogue-free sequence: we’re introduced to an anonymous group of teenagers as they execute some sort of plan. We don’t know their names, their relationships, or their motivations. The filmmaking is methodical, with Bonello’s camera tracking and cutting between each of these precise movements and moments.

But this is where the technical hiccups began. For context, I’ll say I was watching my MacBook, with the laptop parked on my stomach (a move SNL has deemed “The Couch Panini”). I prefer to shove the screen right in my face, rather than watching on my comparatively small television. But for some reason, Google Chrome browser doesn’t play Netflix in 1080p, which means you aren’t seeing whatever you’re watching in quite high definition. It’s not something that bothers me in general (for example, I’ve been watching Tuca and Bertie lately and I haven’t noticed any issues), but I figured for a movie of Nocturama’s caliber, I wanted full HD.

So, I switched over to Safari. But this just created another very specific problem: whenever subtitles appeared, the entire screen would “blink,” meaning the display would go black for a split-second, then switch back on. This happened every time the subtitles would fade, a constant, annoying barrier between me and the thing I was trying to watch.

I closed Netflix and did some Googling. The best I could find was a Reddit thread identifying the issue that advised turning off automatic brightness. Well, dear reader, my automatic brightness was already off. So the blinking persisted – only, due to Nocturama’s mostly wordless beginning, I’d have long stretches where everything would be working normally, followed by constant screen-sputtering.

Everything would’ve cleared up if I’d turned off the subtitles – but, obviously, I was watching a French movie and alas, I don’t speak French. I tried to see if I could access Nocturama on other any other platforms, but it looks like Netflix purchased the exclusive streaming rights. I also tried watching through Chrome, but the picture quality really did look worse. 

After about 20 minutes, I finally found a compromise, which was to play the movie outside of full-screen, eliminating the flickering (with the distracting clock icon staring right back at me for the remaining hundred minutes).

And what an incredible hundred minutes it is. Our “heroes” – if you can stomach calling them that – successfully pull of a string of bombings across Paris. Their motivation and ideology is never clarified, making it a bit more difficult for the viewer to root for their demise. 

Nocturama was shot before the Paris Attacks of November 2015, although again, Bonello’s characters aren’t ISIS. Instead, they’re painted as an inevitability, a diverse faux-youth uprising against a corrupt and suffocating social order. As a random civilian remarks at one point, “It was bound to happen.”

So in the wake of their interior insurrection, the adolescents retreat into an abandoned luxury mall. Their plan is lay low until the next day, then vanish back into their normal lives. But the setting is a perfect reflection of the consumerist society they’re dead-set on destroying. It’s here the film takes on a dream-like quality, a marked contrast to the deliberate first-half. Instead of painstakingly tracking throughout the parisian labyrinth, Bonello’s steadicam shots are confined to this single, specific location.

Streaming services like Netflix promise access to challenging and disturbing outliers like this. But what happens when these services don’t function properly?

Yacine (Hamza Meziani) indulges, racing go-karts, feasting on fine food, and delivering a lip-synced performance of Shirley Bassey’s “My Way” that rivals Frank Booth’s presentation in Blue Velvet. At one point, in perhaps the film’s most memorable frame, he comes face-to-face with a mannequin wearing his same outfit, down to the bright green Nike logo. Wracked with guilt, David (Finnegan Oldfield) finds an escape route but keeps returning to the mausoleum-to be. Throughout, a truly eclectic diegetic soundtrack plays throughout the mall, including Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like” and Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair.”

Needless to say, a movie like Nocturama could never have been made in the United States. It probably wouldn’t find financing in France today. And yet, we have Nocturama. It exists, an impeccably crafted motion picture that leaves its audience with a whole lot of questions and pretty much no answers. And streaming services like Netflix promise access to challenging and disturbing outliers like this. But what happens when these services don’t function properly?

I realize that this situation might seem a bit too specific, but consider that Burning and Roma – gorgeous movies and two of the very best 2018 had to offer – are both streaming on Netflix. This is merely a warning not to watch either (or anything requiring subtitles) on a MacBook, not due to the size of your screen, but because they probably won’t work properly. 

Just a few weeks ago, the New York Public Library dropped Kanopy, a library of 20,000 educational titles, due to rising costs. Again, streaming services offer an alternative to what you can find in your local multiplex, and there’s a whole lot of potential here to increase everybody’s access to independent cinema. Is it too much to ask that Netflix delivers on what it’s promising, much less its enormous promise?

Anyway, all this is to say that you should watch Nocturama. It’s streaming on Netflix right now. 

Nocturama Trailer: