Perhaps the most essential film to premiere on Netflix – or indeed any other home entertainment platform – in the past week is not one of their much-hyped “exclusives”. It took a stray heads-up on my Twitter timeline for me to even notice it had landed on the streaming service, after a year of waiting in vain for a UK cinema distributor to pick it up. But Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama, a blackly transfixing daze of a terrorist thriller, is there now and demands your on-edge attention. Told from the side, if not the perspective, of the terrorists, it examines process and consequence with a clear, calm gaze that exacts punishment without judgment, sympathy without pity.
Quite what the initially swaggering gang of Parisian youths at its centre are after, as they execute a series of bombings and shootings across the city, isn’t set in stone, but the vagueness is theirs, not the film’s. Between them they allude airily to Pinochet’s Chile and swap revolutionary rhetoric, though their politics are as inchoate as their attacks are meticulous. Nocturama’s first hour mesmerisingly tracks their best-laid worst plans with minimal dialogue and patient Steadicam fascination, a cat’s cradle built from tension wire.
It’s in the second half, as they shelter overnight from the fallout in a deserted department store, that the gang’s strategy unravels at a practical and philosophical level. Their semi-ironic capitalist revelling in luxury goods chips away at their righteousness, as the authorities inevitably circle. Bonello shoots it like a dream, an immaculate soundtrack surging at the least expected points: Willow Smith’s Whip My Hair has never sounded so alien. Shot before the terrorist attacks on Paris of November 2015, it dares us to dismiss it as designer anarchy. Rather, it’s a diamond-bright inquiry into activism as branding.
Two of Netflix’s self-stamped exclusives landed on Friday. I have yet to see Angelina Jolie’s much-vaunted Khmer Rouge survival story, First They Killed My Father, but Yance Ford’s documentary, Strong Island, is worthy of a solo spotlight. A shattering requiem, it laments and probes the 1992 murder of the film-maker’s brother – an unarmed African American killed by a white man in a business argument, with inadequate legal consequences – with poetry and biting fury in equal measure. In the course of the film, its focus expands from one devastated family to a countrywide community still stymied by unequal justice.
There is truly no elegant segue from this to Alien: Covenant (Fox, 15), but Ridley Scott’s banging, crashing, walloping re-electrocution of the nearly 40-year-old space-chase franchise doesn’t trade in elegance. Gone is the murky self-mythologising of Prometheus. It’s in with trashy, face-hugging, chest-smashing thrills, as a new astronaut crew is terrorised by a familiar strain of beast, and Scott conducts the slithery tension like the old pro he is. It’s left to Michael Fassbender to mix up affairs a bit as deceptively identical androids. He brings a game eroticism and slender streak of camp to proceedings that no one else has thought to add. It’s by embracing the upgraded B-horror roots of the series, however, that this improbably winds up as its liveliest entry since James Cameron’s Aliens.
Of the remaining releases, fans of Jessica Chastain in imperiously stilettoed, get-shit-done mode should make a beeline for Miss Sloane (eOne, 15), though John Madden’s by-the-book Washington drama, starring the ever-watchable actor as a fierce lobbyist taking on the gun brigade, hasn’t her conviction. Conventional arthouse pleasures, meanwhile, are on offer in The Fencer (Spirit, PG), a milkily handsome biopic of exiled Russian fencing master turned tutor Endel Nelis. Subtitles and Estonian-Finnish provenance notwithstanding, this follows inspirational teacher formula to comforting effect.
Rather more special is Swiss animator Claude Barras’s inspired My Life as a Courgette (Thunderbird, PG), in which the adorability of its stop-motion figurines barely masks the bittersweet directness of its engagement with childhood trauma. Tenderly following an abused orphan as he finds a place in an institutional community of other young outcasts, it’s a family film that trusts child viewers with sometimes painful reality, as well as the mollifying powers of empathy. The great Celine Sciamma (Girlhood, Tomboy) had a hand in the script, and the frank human insight and all-ages maturity of her perspective are felt throughout.