Jean Dujardin, best known for his roles in light-hearted films such as the Oscar-winning “The Artist,” plays the fierce boss of a highly-secretive police brigade that tracked down the assailants of the 2015 Paris attacks in Cedric Jimenez’s “November.”
Written by Olivier Demangel (“Atlantics”), the fast-paced and tense thriller world premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and is being represented in international markets by Studiocanal. Jimenez, who was at Cannes last year with another action-packed police thriller, “The Stronghold,” sat alongside Dujardin with Variety during the festival to discuss the genesis of “November,” how the ensemble cast — including Dujardin, Sandrine Kiberlain, Anais Demoustier and a flurry of fresh faces — worked together, and what it meant for them to tackle this recent tragedy.
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“November” is one of the few recent movies alluding to, or set against the backdrop of the Paris terror attacks of 2015, for instance Alice Winocour’s “Paris Memories” and Isaki Lacuesta’s “One Day, One Night.” But these films are told from the perspective of survivors. How would you say that your film differs from these?
My film isn’t about the attacks but rather about the tentacular investigation that was carried on by this special brigade to track down the two masterminds behind the attacks for five days. It was a race against the clock because they were plotting another attack at a day care. We’re with them non-stop starting from the moment they find out what happened at the Bataclan and across the city, and we see them investigating, hitting dead-ends, finding cues and ultimately succeeding. What compelled me in the script written by Olivier Demangel was the level of detail and also the point of view he had. He wrote it in three years. If we had chosen to give the point of view of victims, it would have been a film on its own. And it doesn’t mean I’m ignoring them in “November.” Obviously I made this film with them in mind.
Jean, you deliver such a strong performance in the film. The last time I saw you play a role with such gravitas was in “J’accuse,” but also in “The Connection,” Cedric Jimenez’s 1970’s set crime thriller in which you starred as French police magistrate Pierre Michel.
Yes, I don’t go there very often. You need the right topic, the right director and the right combination. Cedric and I have that bond and we make a good team. It’s also the work with the other actors because we’re all extremely connected. We know that a film is always a collective effort. In “The Connection,” my character Pierre Michel was a player but also very tough. He was a bit hybrid and there was a fantastical dimension because it was set in the 1970s. Whereas in “November,” my character Fred is fully devoted to his function, we’re not dipping in psychology, and the the film is itself is about the collective effort that was made by this brigade. Fred is inhabited by this cold rage. I liked that feeling, it was empowering.
How did you prepare for the role?
In this case, I spoke to members of the counter-terrorism unit, I watched documentaries. I spoke to (Jimenez) and (Demangel). I even talked to cops in my neighborhood to learn the police slang that I had to make it my own so that it would sound credible. That was the basis. Then I had to find within me a more profound sense of authority, and it came from my father. I remember in “La French” there was the perfume of my father. In “J’accuse” as well, and in this film, too.
What did your father do for a living?
My father was the boss of a metal company and when I would accompany him to the construction sites when he was defending his 20 employees and I can assure you that he had an impressive power of persuasion. At times, I was even a bit embarrassed. He would for instance come to the rescue of his employees if for instance they were running late on something. He would turn around the situation with a self-assurance that was so bold. I think when I play these roles, it’s like the little son who borrows from his father. He really cared about his work. I remember when I told him I was going to do this job, he said do it well, be on time, know your text and smile, always. This advice has proved valuable.
How was the atmosphere of set? It must have been very emotionally charged, especially that scene at the beginning of the film where you give the rundown of the mission to the members of your brigade.
I remember this scene very vividly . We did five or six takes. It was a powerful moment. I was telling everyone they couldn’t give in to their personal emotions, and I was looking at them in the eyes. I can tell you that some of them were crying. They were shaken. It was twice as powerful because we were re-living — through the speech of (then president) Francois Hollande — what we all lived through. When he said “there’s a reason to feel dread and there’s a reason to feel fear.” I remember Cedric would tell me “it’s good, it’s good” to keep me in this state of pressure. Sometimes, as in his film, there is a perfect balance between the character you play and the pleasure you feel to embody him.
We almost regret not seeing more of these characters in their personal lives.
That’s because they have five days to catch the terrorists. They worked day and night, they didn’t go home to have dinner with their kids and on so. So they had no personal lives during that time. It was a tunnel. We actually had people from the brigade who were there with us on set, they would communicate their impressions, sometimes they would comment on a word, a scene or the pace of an interrogation, for instance, so that we could be as accurate as possible.
The movie isn’t political but there is one scene that says a lot when the man who sold the machine guns to the terrorists tries to justify what he did to the investigators. We understand that he’s far-right. That could even be the starting point of a sequel.
Yes, this scene shows that the extremes are often connected by their hatred even if they’re not friends. The skinheads and neo-Nazis are fueled by hatred, just like a terrorist who kills 130 people in cold blood in the street. That’s hatred at its paroxysm.
The ensemble cast is great, very young and diverse, and they look totally distressed. How representative is it of a contemporary counter-terrorism brigade?
It’s pretty accurate. In the wake of the terror attacks at Charlie Hebdo (the satirical magazine), a lot of young people from diverse backgrounds joined the counter-terrorism cell. The November attacks were their first major shock, and the biggest in recent history. There were not prepared for it and neither was their boss.
Jean, what was your reaction when you read the script?
I remember when I read it, it blew me away. It came right at a time when I was about to do another project and had some issue with the script, I couldn’t commit. And this one came and it was just obvious that I had to do it. I watched “The Stronghold” and it floored me. “November” is a necessary film. It feels good to do a necessary film. Even after the polemic around “J’accuse” I had the feeling that I was right to do it, to make a film about this story which is important still today. To remember the victims, their families.
Jean, I remember interviewing you after you made “The Artist” and after “La French.” Both times, you said you were not particularly interested in working on U.S. films.
I’d love to work with Italian or Spanish filmmakers. I’m more attracted to European cinema than American movies.
After winning the Oscar you did land a few small parts, for instance in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Are you still being offered some roles?
Once in a while, but what aggravates me is that it’s always at the last minute two or three weeks before. You need to send a self-tape immediately or be available within three weeks. Who does that? I don’t work like that. I don’t take an immense pleasure in starring in English. It’s not my first language, and the roles I’m being offered don’t exactly transport me.
What are you working on next?
I’m about to start the shoot of Nicolas Bedos’ series “Alphonse” on May 31. I will play a romantic thief whose mission is to please women and satisfy all their desires. Should be fun!
What about you, Cedric? Are you working on this project “Verde” about Ingrid Betancourt and Clara Rojas’ captivity in the Colombian jungle?
Yes, it’s a script stage and we’re planning to shoot around January.
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