Midway through the 75th Cannes Film Festival, the painful memories of France’s worst-ever terrorist attacks are laid bare in a pair of films exploring two facets of the same collective tragedy.
“November”, a breathless thriller by Cédric Jimenez, starring Jean Dujardin among a host of A-listers, recounts the frantic five-day manhunt for Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the coordinator of the attacks on the Stade de France, several Paris bar terrasses and the Bataclan concert hall, in which 130 people were killed and hundreds more were injured.
Alice Winocour’s “Paris Memories” (“Revoir Paris” in the French original), part of the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar at Cannes, focuses instead on the attacks’ devastating psychological impact on survivors, following their interactions as they attempt to piece events together and move on with their lives.
While radically different, both in form and content, the movies reprensent two sides of the same coin, complementing one another as they explore and portray the attacks’ immediate consequences.
Looking for the culprits – and healing
“Over the past five days we’ve been through an unimaginable storm,” says Dujardin’s character Fred, the head of the anti-terror police unit chasing Abaaoud in “November”. It’s a succinct and accurate summary of Jimenez’s breathless movie, a fast-paced, frenetic account of the chaotic manhunt that saw police, intelligence and politicians struggle to coordinate in the immediate aftermath of the November 13 attacks.
“I wanted the audience to feel the exhaustion of those days, sharing it with the characters,” Jimenez said in the film’s press notes. “It’s like hanging on the ropes in a boxing fight, short of breath but knowing you have to battle on.”
The urgency of their mission – two of the attackers are still on the run – leaves no time for the protagonists of “November” to sit back and confront the enormity of what has just happened. Their necessarily repressed emotions stand in stark contrast with the ordeal that is only just starting for Mia, the protagonist of “Paris Memories”, played by Virginie Efira, who drifts around like a ghost with the feeling that she has “become some kind of attraction” for her loved ones.
Mia was in the wrong place at the wrong time, like so many others. In the space of a few seconds, her life plunges into fear, violence and horror. Unable to resume a normal life, she embarks on her own investigation, attempting to piece together the fragments of what happened. The journey leads her to cross paths with fellow survivors, who seek each other out and come together in a form of kinship forged by a common tragedy.
Inspired by real-life accounts, “Paris Memories” is also intimately tied to the filmmaker’s personal experience. “My brother was at the Bataclan, he survived. We exchanged by text message part of the evening,” a deeply moved Winocour told the audience after the film’s screening at Cannes. “I was able to access the survivors’ accounts through my brother and I tried to remain as faithful to them as possible.”
Her film analyses the mechanisms of trauma and resilience through a gallery of characters united by the need to exchange, whether by returning to the sites of the attacks or by way of online discussion groups.
“Survivors turned to online forums to look for each other, trying to find someone whose hand they held during the attacks or with whom they exchanged a glance,” Winocour said. “I discovered a very close-knit community with this idea that we can only rebuild ourselves as a group. I found it very moving, how this trauma led people to break out of the prison of individualism. That’s where I got the idea for a collective film, weaving together paths that would not have crossed otherwise.”
Mia has only fractured memories of what happened. She is desperate to piece them together in order to overcome the trauma. In contrast, haunting memories of that tragic night are all too present for fellow survivor Thomas, played by Benoît Magimel, down to the smallest detail. Both of them share the same feeling of guilt about the less fortunate people who did not survive.
Though a relatively minor theme in “November”, the sense of guilt is also present in Jimenez’s film, conveyed in a poignant scene in which investigators question the injured recovering in a Paris hospital, hoping for leads to Abaaoud.
“I don’t know why I’m still alive,” whispers one survivor, her voice trembling as she recalls how a terrorist’s gun jammed twice while he aimed straight at her. “It’s like they weren’t looking at anything. All those people they had just killed, it meant nothing,” adds another, describing the empty look in the eyes of one of the attackers.
Traumatic memory and tunnel effect
Survivors of traumatic events often have difficulty remembering what happened, while holding on to precise images in their heads. As “November” reminds us, such elements can be crucial to the police. Ultimately, it was one woman’s testimony, describing fluorescent orange sneakers, that led investigators to Abaaoud’s hideout in the Paris suburbs, even as government officials claimed they had killed him in an airstrike in Syria.
In “Paris Memories”, Mia is also haunted by recurrent visions. A feeling of water drops on her hand and the image of a tattoo will prove to be decisive in her personal quest.
“It’s a film about memory, hence the frequent use of flashbacks,” said Winocour. “The point was not to make cinematic flashbacks, but to explore a psychological notion – involuntary traumatic memory,” she added, referring to memory disorders caused by extreme stress.
Jimenez also portrays characters undergoing severe psychological trials, sometimes on the verge of breaking down. “I wanted to recreate what the members of the anti-terrorist brigade had told me,” he said. “They spoke of a ‘tunnel effect’. I found the term very meaningful and sought to portray it in the film. The fact that they go home and have no intimacy with their families seemed important to me in order to tell this story. Because that’s really what they experienced 24 hours a day without interruption. They put everything else aside, even their feelings.”
“November” and “Paris Memories” share another key trait: They both avoid the attacks themselves, using them only as background to their stories. While Jimenez and Winocour explore very different angles, their films share a common endeavour to portray the reaction of a nation to an unfathomable tragedy.
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