A pair of millennial lovers, Ramon (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, from BPM) and Celine (Noémie Merlant, Portrait of a Lady on Fire), must suddenly cope with severe post-traumatic stress after they’re caught up in the 2015 mass shooting at Paris’ Bataclan theater in Berlin competition entrant One Year, One Night.
The first feature-length work in French (mostly) instead of Spanish or Catalan for director Isaki Lacuesta (Between Two Waters), this painfully sad study of love mangled by trauma, based on a novel by Ramon Gonzalez, benefits from innovative direction and eloquent performances. The two leads shine especially, although the whole cast impresses throughout, even those with tiny roles in the scenes during the attack.
One Year, One Night
Visceral and compelling.
One Year should go down particularly well in France and find niches abroad. However, viewers will have to cope with a baffling development toward the end, which reveals that the fate of one character, like Schrodinger’s cat, could be used to illustrate a paradox of quantum superposition (look it up if you don’t mind a mild spoiler). That multiversal touch may really add the poetic zing some viewers crave, but others might simply feel a bit bemused by its intrusion into what has played, up until a certain point, as a perfectly solid work of realist fiction based on actual events. Personally, I would have preferred if they’d picked a lane instead of getting tricksy on us in a way that muddles rather than enhances the film. But it doesn’t really detract from what is a forceful, honest exploration of two people coping with unimaginable shock, grief and survivor’s guilt.
The storytelling throughout jumps abruptly, but with purpose, from one time period to another, some of the scenes happening well before the attack and others long after, so it makes sense that it starts right in the middle. We first see Ramon and Celine walking home through Paris at night, huddled together under one of those gold mylar blankets emergency services employees hand out to people in shock. They can see other people sitting on buses going by wrapped in the same blankets, an image both quotidian and surreal, as if gold wraps were the latest big thing in the trendy 11th arrondissement where the Bataclan is located.
But the couple’s closeness in the immediate aftermath of the attack is soon fractured by their different emotional reactions to the events. Ramon becomes obsessed with watching the news, waiting to hear about the fate of the remaining terrorists, connected to the Islamic State, involved not just with the incidents at the Bataclan but also two other attacks that happened on the same night in Paris. After a few days off, he goes back to his job, where no one seems to know what to say to him, and colleagues try to express sympathy by taking up a collection for him. Before long he quits, and over time his behavior becomes more and more erratic and confrontational.
Celine, on the other hand, behaves completely differently. A care worker in a group home for teenagers in foster care, she seems to feel that her own trauma is no worse than the awful things experienced by the kids she looks after. That said, it’s hard to know what she’s thinking because unlike Ramon she doesn’t want to talk about that night at all. She doesn’t even tell her colleagues she was at the Bataclan, so they are utterly taken aback when she suddenly, and uncharacteristically, slaps an Arab kid at the home after he makes a poor-taste joke about the attacks.
At home, Celine finds herself spending more time comforting Ramon than exploring her own feelings, as if — as she later says in a searing knock-down, drag-out row — he’s taken up all the room with his suffering, leaving no space for her. Elsewhere, their two closest couple friends, Carlos (Quim Guiterrez) and Lucie (Alba Guilera), who were also at the Bataclan that night, react in their own specific ways, with Carlos finally realizing he can’t go on living in Paris anymore and moving back to Spain.
Flashbacks to happier times before Nov. 13 find Celine and Ramon falling in love, shagging in public toilets, getting stoned with friends and so on like 20somethings do with thoughtless abandon everywhere. Noted for his work in documentary and with non-professional actors, Lacuesta draws out spontaneous, warm performances from his cast, who are all very convincing as closely knit friends and lovers in the same happy hipster crowd.
That sensitivity to group dynamics extends right into the well-observed behavior of people at crowded gigs, from the indulgent smiles exchanged with drunken strangers at the bar, to the weird camaraderie and callousness people exhibit in extremis once the shooting starts. At one point much later, a character will cry and castigate themselves with shame, remembering how they walked across bleeding bodies at the theater that night to try and get away from the gunfire. But there is kindness from strangers seen here too, illustrating that even in the worst of times, city dwellers like Parisians, so often described as rude by out-of-towners, are capable of really looking out for each other.
Depicting such a grotesque and devastating scene of horror is a challenge, and one not many filmmakers attempt to show — even in the United States, where mass shootings (as defined by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies) happen literally every day, although thankfully not often on the scale seen here. Lacuesta and his team approach the material with respect, showing relatively little gore, but getting across the panic and disorientation of the victims through editing and sound design that really puts viewers in the moment. It’s more terrifying than any horror film, and as such ought to be required viewing for anyone wishing to understand the human impact of such outrageous acts of violence.