Alice Winocour’s moving French drama Revoir Paris has been given the wistful-sounding English title Paris Memories. But the more accurate translation – “Seeing Paris again” – better addresses something literal and figurative in the emotional state of its main character: not a traveler or visitor, but a French woman tragically rediscovering her city.
Over the course of a day we meet Mia (Virginie Efira), a Russian translator. The day begins with an Akerman-esque window view of Paris rooftops and includes an appearance on a radio station where we interpret interview responses from a ballet director. That evening, her doctor friend (Grégoire Colin) is called away at dinner and Mia heads home on her motorbike, only to escape to a busy bistro when a downpour begins. As the pace mysteriously slows and we watch what Mia is doing — a group celebrating a well-dressed man’s birthday, tourists taking selfies at another table, the sleeveless back of an elegant woman — the noise of the merry patrons cuts through shots interrupted. Suddenly, Mia is lying on the ground, surrounded by death, trying to survive. Then the screen goes black.
Months later, Mia bears a scar on her side. But the details of what turned out to be a coordinated terrorist attack have faded from her mind, save for the flashes and eerie visions triggered by a restarted routine from which she feels increasingly distant, as if she were a spectator incoherent past. One day, as she drives past the restaurant on her motorbike, something persuades her to go inside. She learns of a support group that meets there for survivors and loved ones, tethered hikers searching for missing parts, and recognizes a shared experience.
A young girl, Félicia (Nastya Golubeva Carax), asks Mia if she remembers her parents who never made it home. Mia is attracted to the birthday girl, a banker named Thomas (the wonderful Benoît Magimel), who is now on crutches but infuses his ramshackle vulnerability with humor and rugged charm. However, a visibly distressed survivor said Mia did nothing that night to help others. Though the accusation doesn’t jibe with Mia’s slowly returning memories, it’s another signal to her that the rebuilding process is arduous, incomplete, and fragile enough to be approached with understanding above all else.
This is also Winocour’s concern to refine a story of tragedy and healing inspired by her own connection to a survivor of the Bataclan mass shooting in Paris in November 2015. (Her screenwriters are Marcia Romano and Jean-Stéphane Bron.) Such a first-person empathy for the fundamentals of recreating a forever-changed life, Revoir Paris carries through its revelations and distractions, from the distant gaze that Mia has behind her lets in – a quiet, powerful key to Efira’s smart, mobile performance – interludes being narrated by other survivors about the degree they seek.
Mia is about balancing a broken relationship with the allure of a possible new one, a storyline that oscillates uncomfortably between sharpness of detail and an unfortunate predictability. However, the place where it all takes place is an sonic/visual enrichment – Paris, captured in all its sensual intimacy and roar through Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography and Anna von Hausswolff’s touching score. When Winocour stages the soothing beauty of Monet’s The Water Lilies at the Musée de L’Orangerie, the art gets the superstar cameo treatment.
Most poignantly, however, compassion and insight mingle in Mia’s restless urge to find the stranger (Amadou Mbow) behind the hand that held her hand that night in the frightened darkness, an act of connection – practically directing – from which she believes he saved her life. It is this journey that makes Winocour truly heartbreaking: a tale of the Paris that hides in plain sight, a life of struggle, necessity and perseverance that doesn’t need shared agony and headlines to spur others to embrace it to contemplate its fullness. In this soulful shift from the confusion of repair to the fullness of renewal, Revoir Paris is at its most powerful and dramatizes what it can mean to survive the unimaginable – and see the world with new eyes.
In French with English subtitles
Duration: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Play: Begins June 30th at the Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles