November – movie review

I don’t know about you but I’ve felt a bit jaded going to the movies lately. I mean, there’s only so many explosions, car/boat/spacecraft chases or unlikely romances a person can take. Which is to say, if you want an antidote to all that, you really should consider the terrific French thriller November.

Co-writer and director Cédric Jimenez blends fact and fiction in this pacy drama. With Olivier Demangel and LB, Jimenez has created an intriguing script that kept me on the edge of my seat, even though I knew how generally the real-life events had played out.

The film opens on the night of 13 November 2015 when terrorists hit multiple targets around Paris, including the national stadium, restaurants and the Bataclan theatre, resulting in 130 people dying and over 400 being injured. These attacks aren’t shown on screen. Rather the film centres on the hunt for the (surviving) perpetrators.

The enigmatically named Fred (Jean Dujardin) is the head of the Counter-Terrorism Unit tasked with tracking down the killers. He not only has to navigate the confusing deluge of tips and other information flooding in, but to manage relations with local police services and the demands of politicians. His boss Héloïse (Sandrine Kiberlain) tries to run interference so Fred can get on with the job. Meanwhile, Fred has to manage the smart but impulsive Capitaine Inès Moreau (Anaïs Demoustier). When Moreau oversteps the mark, it threatens the entire operation; so Fred sends her back to dealing with tips from the public. But then she receives a call from Samia (Lyna Khoudri). Samia’s cousin Hasna (Sarah Afchain) has been staying with her. But Hasna has been behaving strangely since the terror attacks and has been meeting with two men. The men are sleeping rough under a freeway, but Samia thinks they might have had something to do with the outrage.

Basically, the film unfolds over five days (with inter-titles helpfully noting the changes of date), and is a confronting look at the massive law enforcement operation that followed the awful events of November 13. But it does it in a very controlled way; even as the chaos is unfolding and leads are being run down. Jimenez focuses on small details rather than grand gestures. While an American version would likely end with flags waving in the breeze, Jimenez is content to have his film unfold as almost a workplace drama. It’s about process, about using your brain. This gives the film an intimate feel. It’s almost like you’re in the room watching the events play out. The finale though shocks – as it’s meant to. An interesting coda tells how the real Samia’s case changed French law.

One thing to note though is that the film moves with real pace. Events happen and characters come in and out of the story, so it takes concentration to keep up with it all. And even with excellent subtitling, the dialogue is sometimes hard to parse.

Jean Dujardin (Deerskin) is terrific as the harried but level-headed Fred. Anaïs Demoustier proves an able foil as the unpredictable but instinctive Moreau. The experienced Sandrine Kiberlain is unfortunately rather sidelined as Héloïse. But Lyna Khoudri (Haute Couture) provides the film’s outstanding turn, giving a compelling performance as the conflicted Samia.

November is a measured, clear-eyed take on the events surrounding the Paris terror attacks. While Jimenez’s narrative is naturally constrained by the actual events, I found this a compelling and ultimately satisfying thriller.

David Edwards

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