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TIFF 2022 Review: Paris Memories – “A character-driven film that is crafted with care and sensitivity”

Courtesy of TIFF

On November 13, 2015 in Paris a series of co-ordinated attacks by terrorists killed 130 people.  Director and co-writer Alice Winocour‘s brother, Jérémie, was at the Bataclan theatre, one of the sites.  He survived, but while he was hiding, she was in contact with him via text for part of the night.  It’s this experience that inspires Paris Memories (Revoir Paris)and while this film is a work of fiction it feels distinctly personal and rooted in reality.

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Mia (Virginie Efira) lives in a flat in Paris, a small Juliette balcony overlooking the rooftops below.  She starts this day like any other, riding her motorbike through the beautiful streets of the City of Lights to work, where she acts as a Russian-French translator in radio.  She meets her partner, Vincent (Grégoire Colin) for dinner, but he must return back to the hospital where he works for an emergency, Mia says she will head home.  But, still on her motorcycle, a terrible rain storm forces her to seek shelter, and a drink, inside a restaurant.  She takes out her notebook and starts making notes about her next translating job.  Then the guns start to go off, and she’s thrown into the middle of incredible violence.

Three months later, Mia is left with a physical scar from the ordeal, but her memory is largely gone.  There are flashes of images that haunt her but after the rain, Mia is left with no clear visions from that night.  She wants to move on, but how can you move past something you cannot remember? She finds her way to a support group for the victims and to Thomas (Benoît Magimel) who feels that she might be lucky not to have those memories, but helps her anyway.  “It takes two or more to remember,” he says, understanding how trauma can change the way we recall things, and how many pieces of this puzzle are still missing for Mia.

Sound plays a large role in this film, where Winocour masterfully builds tension before the attack – a pop of a champagne bottle, sparklers on a cake, rain crashing down, the loud noise of a hand dryer.  When the guns finally go off, you’re already on edge, even though these are all normal, everyday sounds.  These noises later act as prompts, bringing back memories to the forefront of Mia’s mind and uneasiness to the audience.  During the attack, the camera focuses only on the attackers feet, because Winocour has no interest in them, only on those finding refuge, or trying to take cover on the ground.

It’s these detailed touches that make Paris Memories so effective.  One of the more unforgettable moments in the film also surrounds a simple, everyday item.  Mia, in the moment, realizing she might die, thinks of how she left things, a half-eaten pot of yogurt sitting in the fridge haunting her, an image of life not yet finished.  Virginie Efira (also at the festival with Other People’s Children) plays these moments with nuance and subtlety.  Tiny movements of her face, or eyes indicate the panic overtaking her or the pain she feels with memories returning, confusion with the remainder of her amnesia.  Efira anchors this film with an incredible performance.

When I saw her last film Proxima at the Toronto International Film Festival back in 2019, I knew that Alice Winocour was a director I would follow.  With Paris Memories, she yet again revisits a theme of relationships, and trauma (as she did with 2015’s Disorder) with a character-driven film that is crafted with care and sensitivity; all focus on the victims.  As Mia pieces together the parts of that night, we meet others that have their own separate accounts of what happened, each one adding to a larger, complete picture.  Each person’s experience, and how they deal with it, is different.  Mia is forever changed, and what Paris Memories drives home is that trauma can also change how we see everything around us, it can change our relationships, but it can also break down barriers and bind people together like family.

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