Director: Cédric Jimenez (France). Year of Release: 2022
Athens, Summer 2015. Three Arab-looking men are meeting in someone’s flat for a cup of coffee. Outside, groups of riot police are assembling. We switch several times between the coffee-drinking men and the phalanx of cops, which pushes its way through the market square. One of the men gets a phone call and moves up to the roof. The police break down one door before they realise they’re on the wrong floor. By the time they reach the right flat, their prey has disappeared.
Cut to: Paris, a few months later. It’s late, so there’s only one person left in police hq. A phone rings, which he tries to answer. Another phone rings, and then a third. It’s not long before all the phones in the room are ringing shrilly. Something is obviously happening in the centre of Paris. We look at people watching football in the bars, then hear reports from the stadium and a nearby concert. What we don’t hear is the bombs which ripped through the city centre, killing 130 people.
November is about the police reaction to this catastrophe. In particularly, it is about their attempts to track down two suspects who escaped the crime scene. Cops rush through the city streets in fast cars, visit gun sellers in prison and secretly follow suspects through a busy market place. They also spend an awful lot of time sifting through social media. This is a film which likes its adrenaline shots, but is also keen to point out that a lot of modern police work is thanklessly boring.
A woman rings up, out of the blue, saying that she thinks that her flat mate is in touch with one of the wanted men. She is initially ignored. She persists and is invited down to the station. She says that she’s seen a man wearing bright orange trainers – information which has not been released to the public. The police respond by treating her aggressively, as if they suspect her of the bombings. Of course this can’t have anything to do with the fact that she’s wearing a headscarf.
Aesthetically, November is what used to be described as “workmanlike”. Director Cédric Jimenez has taken the decision to define his characters by their jobs and the crisis with which they are confronted. So, aside from the occasional phone call from their neglected kids, we learn very little about them. This works, to a certain extent. It shows how, at times of intense pressure, you have little chance to express your individuality. You just have to frame up and get things done.
At the same time, this lack of characterisation brings its own problems. It means that none of the characters (with the exception of Samia, the informant, and possibly Ines, a cop who takes Samia seriously and makes her promises of protection which she won’t be able to deliver) is someone who we know or particularly care about. The film becomes a series of one damn thing happening after another to people in whom we have invested too little.
Politically, November offers a lot of potential, but somehow falls short. By showing us how Samia is treated, even when she is providing vital information to the cops, shows how deeply ingrained racism is in institutions like the police. At the same time, the film tries to have it both ways. The police is full of black and brown faces – in a way which the real Paris riot police almost certainly isn’t, and tries very hard to plead that it is not attacking terrorists, and not all Muslims.
But then there are moments which are either careless or wilfully ignorant. There are just too many fanatics who will find paradise in death, too many people invoking the Prophet and slaughtering infidels to make you think that they’ve not been delving into the Big Dressing Up Book of Muslim Stereotypes. When a cop threatens a suspect that he’ll post on facebook that the suspect’s been seeing a Shi’ite, I think we are supposed to treat this as serious narrative.
I read a German review which honestly congratulated the film for taking “a bit of courage nowadays with the political climate to make movies that include a story where the followers of Islam are the bad guys.” Because Hollywood hasn’t made a single film in the past 20 years blaming Islam, has it? Many fine dark-skinned actors have made a career of shouting “Allahu Akbar“ and “Death to the Infidel” because film directors will not consider them for any other role.
Maybe Jiminez has set up a schema of virtuous cops who must defeat the evil terrorists from a liberal desire to protect democracy from the truly barbarous act which hit Paris in November 2015. Maybe, but then you read that he has already made many uncritical films about the police, one of which, The Stronghold, was recommended by Marine Le Pen as showing the “terrible reality” of multi-cultural Marseille. Something makes me think that he’s not fully innocent.
The problem is that the form used almost precludes nuance. There is too much adrenaline laced running around to give us time for thought. It is all just a prelude to the final shootout, when police machine guns rip a flat door to shreds, killing innocent bystanders in the process (though which of them Is really innocent? nudge-nudge), while all the time depicting the police response as fair and reasonable. Reminder; this is based on real events which are still being contested.
At the end, Fred, the cop with whom we spend most time, makes a speech saying “For us, it is only the beginning”. Given the recent authoritarian lurches made by the Macron government, and the amount of firepower that we’ve just witnessed, this may not be good. Ultimately, November shows too little interest in understanding why the tragic bombings hit Paris in 2015, and still less in how future attacks can be prevented. Instead all it really wants to do is flex its muscles.