By © Jane Freebury

A kinetic thriller based on the police response to terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015 was the most successful local film at the French box office last year. The action in November rolls out over the five days it took police to track down two of the remaining perpetrators of attacks that had resulted in the deaths of 130 people and seen hundreds more injured.

The nightmare and trauma that was Friday 13 November was not an isolated event of course. Terrorists had carried out deadly raids on the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo earlier that year, and there was more attacks to come in the years ahead.

During my interview with the film’s director, Cedric Jimenez, he is in Paris. Originally from Marseille where his last film Bac Nord was made, he now splits his time between his home city and the French capital. But at the time of the coordinated attacks in 2015 he was somewhere else, at work in Budapest directing his WWII thriller, The Man with the Iron Heart.

“It was strangely even worse because I and my French team felt so powerless. You feel almost guilty about not being there. I have a daughter who was 14 at the time and living not far from the Bataclan.”

How would he manage the sensitivities about events so wounding for French people?

“It was of course a big trauma in France and is a very sensitive subject. We tried to make it with a lot of humility and respect. When I say humility, (I mean) it was about cast and crew being there to serve the film, and not about making a film that would serve us.”

“We tried to be super-focused on the event and as respectful as we could about how it happened, and how the police experienced it.”

“I wanted to keep the attacks out-of-frame for many reasons. Most important is that it would have been obscene to re-create the terrorist attacks. Anyway, the point of view is of the police and they didn’t see the attack.”

With the horrors of the Bataclan and elsewhere an unseen but deeply shocking backstory, November is essentially a police procedural focusing on the pursuit of the two terrorists still at large in Paris afterwards. And an excellent one at that. One can only imagine the galvanizing fear and the number of false leads, and that hundreds of raids were carried out during the five days to find them.

Cedric Jimenez director of November. Image courtesy Palace Films

“Those five days were insane in terms of intensity, tension and importance… (yet) we didn’t know those two guys were still in town. It could have been even worse than it was. I think it was important to tell the story this way.”

“A lot of victims wrote to us to thank us because they didn’t know what the police did and how the investigation was carried out. So, in this way, it is a homage.”

Handsome, versatile actor Jean Dujardin, who we all remember fondly from The Artist, has the lead role as Eric, who is handling the police response alongside Heloise (Sandrine Kiberlain). Was the Dujardin character a composite or is he modelled on someone in particular?

“His character in real life is probably closest to the real-life character he is modelled on. About the same age, the same kind of guy, with a lot of authority. Very intense.”

“There were probably about 150 characters in real life but in the film we represented maybe 20. We had to do that, and in fact we didn’t invent anything.”

A most chilling scene in November takes place in an interview with snearing, taunting suspect

His threats beg the question as to why Paris was singled out by the terrorists. I don’t like to ask the question, but is it because of French secularism, the absence of laws against blasphemy, the anti-clerical satirical press like Charlie Hebdo, the freedom of expression so beloved by the French?

“Sure, those terrorists were (mostly) Belgian and French. They attacked the societies they know and hate the most. I think that’s it…”

Did he and co-writer Olivier Demangel collaborate closely with the police and anti-terrorism operatives during development? “Not really, it was most important to have their trust. It’s pretty easy to meet up with them but it’s not easy to make them talk!”

Jimenez often collaborates on his screenplays with his partner, Audrey Diwan, a journalist and filmmaker who had a major success in 2021 with her film Happening. On this occasion, Jimenez directed from a screenplay that was originally written by screenwriter Demangel.

An interesting and surprising angle to the police pursuit is a woman (Lyna Khoudri), whose looks and age were of course changed for the film, who comes forward with information. It is her flatmate, Hasna Ait Boulahcen (Sarah Afchain), who dies alongside the remaining terrorists in the final shootout. Her character is not explored, to the frustration of some critics who say that she as a sympathizer needed more complexity.

“Now, we still know nothing about her. The police did not know she existed. They heard her voice because her phone was bugged, maybe five times. They never saw her face. How can I say more than that? If I would have said more, I would have been inventing her, doing my own interpretation.”

“Of course, she was lost. Of course, she didn’t know what she was doing but I had little information about her so I couldn’t tell her story. I understand she was a complex character and a very interesting representation of how society can go wrong and put someone in a lost place. Of course, I understand that, but this was not the movie to tell that story, about a true character that I don’t know anything about.”

There is also the extent to which terrorist’s motivations are, to us, inexplicable. “Yes, if you have to explain it, it’s of course another movie.”

First published in the Canberra Times on 13 May 2023. Jane’s film reviews are also published on Rotten Tomatoes