Paris Memories (Revoir Paris) Review – Alice Winocour Honours Survivors in This Powerful Drama

Alice Winocour’s fourth feature moves into somewhat personal territory for the writer/director. Partly inspired by her brother’s survival of the 2015 Bataclan terrorist attack, Winocour is searching for the “diamond in trauma,” the piece of the puzzle that finally fits so victims and survivors of catastrophic events can heal and learn to live with what they experienced.

Winocour opens the film with a shot from Mia’s (Virginie Efria) Paris apartment. The camera begins at her window where the breeze gently stirs the curtains and widens to reveal a serene city. The serenity is broken when Mia shatters a glass in her kitchen. Bidding goodbye to her partner, Vincent (Grégoire Colin) who is a doctor, Mia gets on her motorbike and heads to her work as a Russian interpreter for Radio Paris.

Mia’s day seems completely ordinary. After work she meets with Vincent in a bistro for dinner. He takes a call during the meal and heads back to the hospital. Mia decides to ride home but heavy rain means that she returns to the bistro, L’étoile d’or, to have a drink until the worst of the weather passes. Winocour documents every moment of Mia’s time in the bistro – from the fact that she has to be sat in the back room because the front is too busy, to her watching tourists take selfies, and meeting the gaze of a man celebrating his birthday. Even a small mishap with a fountain pen that sends Mia into the bathroom is significant. Why? Because in an instant this ordinary day of a middle-class Parisian is going to be upended by a violent terrorist attack where gunmen storm the restaurant and mercilessly shoot anyone they can find.

Winocour shows the attack in stark detail. We watch as Mia crawls on the floor while gunfire ricochets around her. We see the attackers murder people. We watch as Mia plays dead amongst the bodies surrounding her. The scene is taut and terrifying. Chaos unfolds and at some point, Mia is injured. After her injury her mind goes blank and she represses her memories of the event.

Three months after the attack Mia returns to Paris after spending time with her mother. She sustained a wound to the abdomen, and she is trying to convince her doctor to remove the scar tissue. She just wants all traces of the event gone. However, her PTSD triggered memory loss has not taken away all the events of the night, it has reshaped them as a puzzle that she is living. A small prompt will cause her to see a fragment of that night. She is haunted by waking visions of people she saw. Her complex trauma is not going to be healed until she finds out what happened to her and others during that terrible night.

On a bus she passes the bistro which has reopened to business as usual with the exception of one morning a week where survivors of the attack meet as a form of therapy. The owners of L’étoile d’or are not happy to have the place marked as a space of trauma, and at least a few of the current staff are actively hostile to the survivors. The sense that business as usual must go on is felt as the city eventually begins to remove any monuments to the victims of the co-ordinated attack that took hundreds of lives.

Mia enters the bistro in the hope of finding something – she’s not entirely sure what. Her main interactions are with a young woman, Félicia (Nastya Golubeva Carax) who lost her parents that night, and fellow survivor, Thomas (Benoît Magimel) whose birthday it was on the night of the shooting. Thomas remembers more than the other survivors and he asks if Mia really wants to remember. Thomas’ legs have been shattered by bullets, but he exudes joie de vivre that Mia is attracted to.

What follows is based in Mia’s experiences in regaining her memories but is not exclusive to just her journey. Numerous other characters offer their own lingering feelings about the event in slightly staged voiceovers. Although Mia is the film’s narrative lynchpin Winocour is concerned with the tapestry of responses to the attack. One woman points at Mia and loudly exclaims that she locked herself in the bathroom and stopped other people escaping the gunfire. Mia imagines that it could have happened, but it doesn’t seem right. A young server, Nour (Sophia Lessaffre) speaks about kissing an Australian man because they both feared they would die. That man addresses the camera but is speaking to Nour in words he will never share with her, that he has never felt closer to anyone in his life. He knows she is searching for him on social media, but he will never respond because it will overwhelm him.

Mia’s memories begin to cement, and she realises that she was trapped in a kitchen closet with an undocumented Senegalese chef who held her hand. She begins a search for him that takes her to the less salubrious parts of the city. She just needs to know if he’s alive. Once she finds out his real name, Assane (Amadou Mbow), she continues to search for him because she needs to thank him for being with her in that moment. Like many survivors she is searching for a way to “make something” out of the experience that is more than constantly reliving the trauma and being seen as an oddity by her friends, and her partner.

Mia closes herself off from her former world. Vincent resents that she has pulled away from him and is becoming suspicious that she is having an affair. What is really happening is that Mia is forming a new community – one that understands her without judgement. In one of the most effective scenes in the film Mia takes Félicia to see Monet’s Water Lillies. Félicia’s parents were writing her a postcard in the restaurant before they died. The postcard image is just a fragment of the monumental painting. Mia and Félicia stand dwarfed by the work, but when they finally find that detail Félicia’s journey to healing begins.

There are some aspects to the film that seem unnecessary, Mia’s relationship with Thomas evolves into something romantic. Although there is deep tenderness is their interactions the relationship does seem to only serve a point that Winocour has already made – only people who have been through the kind of violence that they shared have an understanding that is beyond those who did not. Thomas’ wife Estelle says, “We’ll never overcome this.” In a sense Winocour is broadening the list of victims to anyone who is close to someone who survived or lost someone. While this is true, the idea had been explored already in Mia’s own disintegrating relationship with Victor.

Ultimately, Paris Memories is about recovering and moving onwards from an event that can define a life. Virginie Efria’s shining performance as Mia is bathed in the neon glow of the city of light (the work of cinematographer Blaise Harrison is hypnotic as often as it is necessarily frantic), but her wanderings around Paris are never aimless. She finds a way to invite living back into her life. Although the trauma will never leave Mia, Winocour assures us that she will be more than just a survivor – she will be alive, and with her so too Paris endures.

Director: Alice Winocour

Cast: Virginie Efira, Benoît Magimel, Nastya Golubeva Carax

Writers: Alice Winocour, Jean-Stéphane Bron, Marcia Romano

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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