Understandably, the terrorist attacks in Paris on the night of November 13, 2015 have been treated with great sensitivity by the French film industry, and the only other film in the Cannes Film Festival’s lineup this year to touch on those events — Alice Winocour’s Paris Revoir — is a lightly fictionalized drama set in the aftermath of the night 130 people were killed, most of them at a rock concert at the city’s Bataclan nightclub. Though many names have been changed, for obvious security reasons, Cedric Jimenez’s Novembre is, by contrast, a heavy-artillery just-the-facts-ma’am police procedural detailing the manhunt that followed in the next five days.
The Cannes out-of-competition film starts in a quite surprisingly low-key way, following a woman jogging the banks of the Seine as David Bowie’s mournful early 1970s cover “Sorrow” plays. The events of the night play out on screen, and though, quite rightly, we are not shown any of the carnage, we do find out that the jogger, Ines (Anaïs Demoustier), is an off-duty cop with the city’s anti-terrorist team, and her shock when she gets a call from the team is a neat way of showing just how bad news really travels. In the office, Fred (Jean Dujardin) and Héloise (Sandrine Kiberlain) are charged with the impossible task of finding the people responsible for the shootings, using CCTV footage, in-person surveillance and phone wires to investigate a terror network with links to Brussels.
For the most part, this is superior reconstruction stuff, so much so that Dujardin soon disappears into a role that is largely exposition, pointing at maps and pictures on pin boards, and shouting at subordinates in a generous, avuncular way. The military aspect is slightly disturbingly fetishized; though Fred’s division is clearly on the right side of history, the Hollywood-blockbuster images of faceless police in black riot gear don’t exactly make it look like the cavalry is coming, which is when you might realize that you’re not watching a run-of-the-mill Netflix true-crime drama. The shootouts are brutal, and though necessary to the story, their presentation is a little counterintuitive in a film that is predicated on the preservation of peace in a non-violent society.
Thankfully, there are glimmers of humanity, and just when it seems that there might be no nuance at all to this effective but so far prosaic film, Jimenez pivots to the story of Samia (the fantastic Lyna Khoudri Samia), a young do-gooder at a homeless camp who has serious intel: her flatmate is bankrolling her cousin, one of the terrorists.
This is where Novembre takes off; Fred and Héloise put pressure on Ines to deliver the suspect by any means, and the film strikes out in a slight different direction. Until now, it has been about rules, responsibility and the full weight of the law — but in an abstract way. Now, with Samia being strong-armed and frightened, we see how those things impact on normal people, how civic duty is all well and good until you try to actually do it.
Novembre doesn’t offer any new insights into what happened, and neither does it dwell on that. What’s good about it is that reflects on lessons learned, giving credit where it’s due — finding terrorists in today’s world is near-impossible task, so the achievements the French made that week are incredible — but it also isn’t afraid to find fault, noting the injustices that can and do happen, ironically, in the pursuit of justice itself.