Writer Jimmy Dougan / Press Images courtesy of Picturehouse Entertainment
How do you recover from something so traumatic that you find yourself physically unable to remember it happening? This is the question faced by Mia (Virginie Efira) in Paris Memories, a powerful yet heavy-handed drama from director Alice Winocour.
Screened as a low-key epilogue of sorts to this year’s Flatpack Festival and hosted by Film Hub Midlands, this modest film is worth catching for Efira’s devastating central performance.
Winocour’s film delves into Mia’s traumatised psyche in the aftermath of a mass shooting in a Parisian bistro. Her recovery is hindered by her inability to recall exactly what happened in the moments following the first shots. “Erased from my memory,” she remarks in a voiceover, “What happened then”’
Winocour, sensibly, never reveals the motive of the attackers and instead foregrounds Mia’s recovery and her experiences with a group of fellow survivors. But the story has its basis in very real, very tragic circumstances – Winocour’s brother is a Bataclan survivor and communicated with his sister via text as he hid from three gunmen aligned with the Islamic State, and Winocour also later took inspiration from message boards and forums used by survivors in the aftermath of the attacks.
Winocour is clever still to keep Mia as a bit of a blank slate. She lives in a trendy apartment and is in a steady if dull relationship with a doctor, Vincent (Grégoire Colin). She is a journalist and translates Russian for an artsy radio station. The point Winocour makes is that Mia could be any one of us. The world is a fundamentally unknowable place, and terrorist acts are by their nature unexpected.
Winocour cleverly forces us to consider how we would respond to finding ourselves in such extreme scenarios, and it helps that the rendering of the attack she gives us is genuinely frightening. It’s harrowing and upsetting. Julien Lacheray’s editing is brutal. Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography switches to handheld the moment the shooting begins. It’s an astonishing sequence and recalls Polytechnique or even Elem Klimov’s Come and See in its relentless, hyper-realist Denis Villeneuve’s intensity.
Paris Memories returns obsessively to the attack and Winocour tantalisingly gives us alternate perspectives: in one hypothetical scenario, Mia locks herself in a bathroom while other victims beg to be let in. Another is from the perspective of two young people who, reasoning they may well be dead soon, hide in the air vents and kiss.
Following the attack, Mia often finds herself stuck on public transport with the deceased or passing by them in the street or hospital corridors. Winocour’s point is simple but profound: survivors very rarely revisit the memories of their trauma voluntarily. Mia is unable to find closure because her memories have fundamentally altered the way she experiences the world.
In terms of directorial choices, Winocour splits the film down the middle: one half is a tense investigative thriller depicting Mia as she tries to excavate her grief and find some semblance of a definite version of events. The other half depicts the support group for survivors where Mia begins to find some semblance of solace.
One member, Félicia (Nastya Golubeva Carax), wasn’t even present at the attack, but takes comfort in sitting at the table where her parents were murdered. Finance guru Thomas (Benoît Magimel) was celebrating his birthday but is now bleary-eyed and using crutches.
If these sequences seem heavy-handed, it’s because they are. Winocour is clearly writing and directing from a place of genuine earnestness, but they regrettably sap the momentum from the rest of the film’s investigative elements. Efira and Magimel make for a loveable duo, yet their profound insights into recovery feel overly weighted and pointed.
More affecting is Mia’s desperate wish to locate the stranger who clasped her hand and helped her stay calm during the attack, which also allows Winocour to delve into the experience of undocumented black migrants in contemporary Paris’ service industry. It’s truly powerful stuff, the image of a bloodied hand reaching out from the darkness to intertwine itself with Mia’s eliciting gasps from the audience.
And it’s anchored by a quietly colossal performance from Virginie Efira, who gives a softly devastating depiction of Mia’s psychological turmoil. In her native France, Efira’s name has become synonymous with the kind of grand, tour-de-force performances which sweep awards ceremonies. She’s working in a more contemplative register here, beautifully aligned with Mia’s inability to articulate exactly what she’s endured. The way her eyes constantly move around the room scanning for exits is heart-breaking.
The world Winocour depicts is a frightening and unknowable one, an idea enforced by Efira’s moving performance and tense, nerve-jangling flashback sequences. Even if the film feels structurally uneven and emotionally heavy-handed, Winocour’s complex depiction of womanhood post-trauma is sure to stick in your memory.
Paris Memories releases in UK cinemas on 2 June, with Birmingham showings announced soon.