It’s been nearly seven years since the devastating November 2015 terrorist attacks on Paris that left 137 dead, and while the effects of the tragedy have been indirectly felt in a surge of French films centered on terrorism, security fears and cultural conflict, filmmakers have largely shied away from direct dramatizations of the events and their fallout. Isaki Lacuesta shows no such hesitation in his ambitious, windingly structured “One Year, One Night,” which provides an explicit anatomy of trauma as experienced over the course of a year by a Franco-Spanish couple who survived the Bataclan nightclub massacre — itself reconstructed in claustrophobic, stomach-knotting flashbacks. Fictional but drawn from first-hand accounts, it’s a sprawling, empathetic work that sometimes loses clarity amid its sheer weight of feeling.
Poised to be an international arthouse breakthrough for its Spanish writer-director — who has twice won the top prize at the San Sebastian Film Festival, but remains comparatively little-known outside his homeland — this robust Berlinale competition entry should attract significant distributor interest on the strength of its still-resonant subject matter, blunt emotionalism and the star pairing of Nahuel Pérez Biscayart (“BPM”) and Noémie Merlant (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”). At 130 minutes, however, this intimate take on recent history does feel slightly over-inflated, hammering home memories and sentiments that have already hit hard; a little judicious cutting would not go amiss.
Co-written with Isa Campo and Fran Araújo, Lacuesta’s screenplay is drawn principally from “Love, Peace and Death Metal,” a Spanish-language memoir by Bataclan survivor Ramón González, detailing how he and his partner Paula took very different paths to recovery after the attack. Here, Ramón (Pérez Biscayart) is a tech worker and musician living a comfortably shabby-chic life in Paris with his French girlfriend Celine (Merlant), who works at a shelter for troubled youths. Their social life is rowdy and full; seeing an Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Bataclan is par for the course for this hipster couple, even if only one of them is a fan.
Lacuesta opens on an eerie, near-surreal image from the immediate aftermath of the attack, as DP Irina Lubtchansky’s camera picks out a dazed Ramón and Celine on a ghostly Parisian sidewalk in the small hours, walking with no great sense of purpose. If not for the emergency space blankets around their shoulders, catching and refracting the streetlights like shattered gold mirrorballs, they could be any pair of disheveled night owls. When a bus passes them, filled with other shell-shocked, foil-cloaked victims, the awful context becomes clear.
“One Year, One Night” waits some time before plunging us into the murky hell of the attack and evacuation itself, revisited as nightmarish memory flashes impeding the characters’ day-to-day living in the year that follows. Vividly realized and potentially triggering as they are — shot in close, chaotic half-light by Lubtchansky, with clattering sound design that conveys the clash and confusion of bodies — the necessity of these scenes is debatable. The film’s more quietly empathetic, after-the-fact drama already makes clear enough how Ramón and Celine still feel the horror of those hours in their bones.
It’s in the more banal details of life after catastrophe that the film rings most true. In one piercingly well-observed scene, a group of survivors mordantly share the most tone-deaf sympathy texts they’ve had from loved ones: “The show must go on,” reads one, to peals of laughter. It’s on that very sentiment, however, that Ramón and Celine are increasingly divided. While she takes an approach of stoic repression — immersing herself in work, and not even telling her family or colleagues that she was at Bataclan — he finds himself unable to soldier on, as PTSD derails his career, social life and even his ability to go out alone.
The shifting dynamics of their evolving and devolving relationship are what give this agitated film its throughline as it whirls restively between flashbacks and flash-forwards, edited with acrobatic intricacy by Fernando Franco and Sergi Dies. Both giving full-blooded performances, Pérez Biscayart and Merlant make for an unconventional but compelling screen couple, with their stereotype-defying power balance — she’s the pragmatic protector to his nervy fragility — lending particular interest to their abrasive shouting matches later in proceedings.
Yet the film overcomplicates its already effective drama. The separate crises of the teens at Celine’s workplace lead the film into some chewy sociopolitical debates that briefly recall Laurent Cantet’s “The Class,” but there’s hardly room for them to be satisfyingly developed amid the central characters’ trauma. A late swerve into a blurred spiritual dimension, meanwhile, brings about more murky confusion than productive ambiguity, leading viewers to wonder if they either missed a trick or lost something in translation. “One Year, One Night” doesn’t need to strain for poetry: There’s plenty in its sensory detailing of the everyday, magnified and made haunting. Its most lyrical recurring image is that of dust motes dancing, in extreme closeup, on the disturbed nightclub floor — the kind of minute, hyperreal vision you might cling to in moments of panic, when you daren’t take a look around.