I’m trying no to use the word ‘survivor’ here. Because they want to live, not survive. And this is what we’re talking about here [in Un año, Una Noche]. We’re looking at the details, the emotions that filled the film. These people who are trying to carry on with their lives.

Director Isaki Lacuesta during the premiere press conference at the 72nd Berlin International Film Festival

On the night of the 13th of November 2015, at the Bataclan theatre in Paris, during a concert by the rock band Eagles of Death Metal, three gunmen from an ISIS terrorist cell stormed the place, starting a mass shooting and a hostage-taking. Ninety people were killed and more than two hundred were injured in the attack.

That night, Catalan director Isaki Lacuesta was not far from the massacre, as he recalls during the press conference of Un año, Una Noche (One Year, One Night) at the 72nd Berlin International Film Festival. This led him to immediately empathize with the people affected. However, it wasn’t until he read the autobiographical book Paz, Amor y Death Metal by Ramón González, a victim of the jihadist attack, that Lacuesta finally decided to tell his story in a movie.

Un año, Una Noche premiered in competition at the 72nd Berlinale, where it won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury in the International Competition.

Terrorist attacks as subjective traumatic experiences

What was meant to be a psychological drama centered on Ramón (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), soon turns into a fragmented love story. The relationship between Ramón and his partner Céline – played by Noémie Merlant who had her breakout role in Céline Sciamma‘s Portrait of a Lady on Fire – takes center stage. As the two deal very differently with the legacies of the Bataclan attack, a painful dissection of their beings, and of what really matters in life, begins.

Unlike other movies inspired by real terrorist attacks – such as Paul Greengrass22 July (2018) – which attempt to reenact the events minute by minute, there is no such pretense in Un Año, Una Noche. Rather, Lacuesta follows the protagonists in their subjective traumatic experiences. As Japanese writer Haruki Murakami does in his novel Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche; or as German director Fatih Akin partially does in In the Fade (2017).

Gold, Gunpowder & Love

Ramón and Céline walk home together in the middle of the night. The golden Mylar blanket on their shoulder makes them look like shiny superheroes ready to fight. And that is what they actually do for much of the movie. They fight against people’s pity; their own survival guilt; and the horrible memories of that night. But most of all, they fight with each other. On one side, Ramón attempts to deal with all of his anger, pain, and fear by trying to recall exactly what happened in the Bataclan theater. He compulsively reads the news, shares his feelings with friends and family, and quits his job. On the other side, Céline closes herself off completely in denial. She tries to forget. As a reaction, she takes care of the teenagers at the institution where she works and of Ramón. The only one she doesn’t take care of is herself.

Flashbacks where everything seemed fun and where worries were minor interrupt this gloomy flow. Ramón and Céline make love, go to parties, and enjoy life. The viewer sometimes wonders who these two are. They are unrecognizable. Then more flashbacks start popping up in the protagonists’ minds and blend in on the screen. And everything starts to make sense. Screams and gunshots in the dark. The golden powder of human body particles and gunpowder floating in the air. The stomping on people bleeding on the floor while trying to escape. The terrifying, suspended time spent in the closet before the police intervene. It takes a year, for Céline and Ramón to put their pieces back together and love themselves again. To finally come back to life. The Bataclan attack was a rupture in the couple’s existence and everything needs to be rebuilt, piece by piece.

Fragments of traumatic memories

Flashbacks where everything seemed fun and where worries were minor interrupt this gloomy flow. Ramón and Céline make love, go to parties, and enjoy life. The viewer sometimes wonders who these two are. They are unrecognizable. Then more flashbacks start popping up in the protagonists’ minds and blend in on the screen. And everything starts to make sense. Screams and gunshots in the dark. Human body particles and gunpowder floating in the air. The stomping on people bleeding on the floor while trying to escape. The terrifying, suspended time spent in the closet before the police intervene. It takes a year, for Céline and Ramón to put their pieces back together and love themselves again. To finally come back to life. The Bataclan attack was a rupture in the couple’s existence and everything needs to be rebuilt, piece by piece.

Sounds and physical reactions are the key

All of the actors involved in the movie, even those in minor roles, impress with their natural performances. The two protagonists went through a very deep and personal exploration to prepare for the movie. Nahuel Pérez Biscayart recalls that the visual aspect and sound were essential to him. This is indeed his way of relating to traumatic emotions. Since he had to enact something, and some feelings, that he had never experienced before, it was difficult. However, recalling images and sounds from his previous minor traumatic experiences helped him in that sense. This is probably also one of the reasons why Raül Refree‘s soundtrack plays a key role in Un Año, Una Noche.

Actress Noémie Merlant, director Isaki Lacuesta and actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart at the Photo Call.
Actress Noémie Merlant, director Isaki Lacuesta, and actor Nahuel Pérez Biscayart at the Un año, Una Noche photo call. Image courtesy of Piero Chiussi/Berlinale 2022.

On her side, Noémie Merlant points out the importance of the body. And, during the premiere press conference, she shares the questions that guided her research. How do people physically respond to trauma? For example, when having a panic attack you can’t breathe. And how different are the two characters’ personal reactions to the same event? Together with a choreographer, Biscayart and Merlant worked on this and the development of the couple’s body language.

During the premiere press conference, the actress claims that “What I like about Isaki is that he works on details that reveal the truth”. The result is an honestly overwhelming portrait of two phoenixes trying to rise from the visually beautiful, but actually horrific, golden dust in which they were buried during the Bataclan attack.

Terrorism movies: just voyeuristic business?

The list of movies and documentaries about real terrorist attacks keeps on increasing since 9/11. Un Año, Una Noche might be considered as yet another voyeuristic business where panic, blood, and death are displayed for the viewer’s entertainment. However, some of its elements like the non-linear narration; the extensive research behind the production; the involvement of actual shooting survivors; and the natural acting, suggest that movies like this, concerned with terrorism, execute yet another function. Terrorism movies are not purely a new realm of production, but also psychological devices to come to terms with extreme events.

The vast production and success of terrorism-related movies demonstrate the extent to which the public seeks a fictionalized re-enactment of contemporary collective traumas. Seeing events that have changed the course of history and society as we know it, dissected and reenacted on the screen aids in the emotional understanding of such events. The fear of “the other” are thus exorcised through art and become part of the mainstream imagination. As in the ancient Greek tragedy The Persians (472 BCE) by Aeschylus, where the Persian war and its violence were shown to a still traumatized public in a fictional context only eight years after the real war. Similarly, Un Año, Una Noche guides viewers through the protagonist’s healing process only seven years after the Bataclan attack.

Confirming this trend, only during the same Berlinale edition, besides Un Año, Una Noche, two other movies dealt openly with terrorism: Alain Guiraudie‘s Viens Je t’emmène (Nobody’s Hero), and Adam Koloman Rybanský‘s Kdyby radši hořelo (Somewhere Over the Chemtrails).

International production, universal themes

But are Parisians ready to relive such realistic, brutal, and sensitive images? And above all, shot by a Spanish director? Noémie Merlant’s answer is yes. Moreover, she argues, since people of thirteen different nationalities were involved in the production of Un Año, Una Noche, this movie becomes an international affair. And universal and international are also the themes of the movie, as Lacuesta once again points out.

We started shooting Un Año, Una Noche before Covid, but the main question affecting Ramón about how do we want to live has become even more central after the start of the pandemic.

Isaki Lacuesta during the premiere press conference at the 72nd Berlin International Film Festival