‘I was making a film about the trauma of an entire country’: director Alice Winocour talks about her film about the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks | Movies

Ee from the safety of her home, filmmaker Alice Winocour’s experience of the Paris attacks in November 2015 was terrifying. His younger brother, Jérémie, was hiding in a back room of the Bataclan concert hall and forbade him to text him in case it revealed his location. She had to wait to learn that he had made it out alive. Later, he told her of a random thought he had while waiting to die: that he had left half-eaten yogurt open in the refrigerator. What would anyone who found him think of his poor hygiene in the kitchen?

It’s a touch of human absurdity that resurfaces in Paris Memories, his new film, on the attacks of November 13. Unlike Jean Dujardin’s recent film Novembre, it completely ignores religion and largely overlooks bloodshed. Instead, it joins films such as You Won’t Get My Hate and One Year, One Night to Get Through the Consequences. French title Revoir Paris has it figured out: starring Benedetta’s Virginie Efira as Mia, a radio translator caught in the crossfire at a cafe, the film focuses on how she reconstructs her memories of that night and with them its inner harmony, as well as that of the City of Lights.

Winocour’s brother did not think that the barbarism and the horror of the attacks could be represented in the cinema. The director handles it smartly, though, from Mia’s perspective, prostrate in terror on the cafe floor, watching the gunmen’s feet pass by. But it’s the film’s later narrative approach that’s most innovative, less plot and more an ominous void that Mia must fill as she breaks through her amnesia. “My brother often told me it was like a torn painting, a hole in the canvas,” Winocour says, swallowing hard as she broaches the subject. “And I had the feeling of trying to sew the canvas back together with the film, of trying to fix everything, to console, to soothe.”

The 47-year-old – dressed in a blue T-shirt with a badge reading “Flesh” and peeking out from under long brown bangs – sits in the back of a cafe which is one of her writing spots usual near her home. In the wealthy third arrondissement, a few hundred meters from boulevard Voltaire in the 11th tattier, where the Bataclan is located, it was one of the effortless millions of Parisian bars that could have been targeted that evening.

Shot in the fall of 2021 in the “charged” atmosphere of the assailants’ trials, the film – notably introspective – melted into this collective process of mourning and reflection. “As we were filming, there were candles outside the restaurants, and people were stopping to ask if anything had happened there,” Winocour explains. “I realized that I was making a film about the trauma of an entire country. Virginie and I felt that we had a lot of responsibilities on our shoulders.

Winocour was aware of the debate that often revolves around post-atrocity films: is it too early to direct them or, as some have suggested to her about the Paris attacks, too late? She just felt that the time had come for her to face her own shock. After filming in Germany and Kazakhstan on her previous pic, the astronaut drama Proxima, she returned to her hometown in a proper state of dislocation. “There was this idea of ​​being a stranger in your own city, looking at it like you were in limbo, like you weren’t in the land of the living anymore,” she says, wrapping her earphone wires around her ears. fingers. The film he often looks like, as Mia strolls down the boulevards tapping into the psyche of her fellow citizens, is Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire.

Virginie Efira as Mia in Souvenirs of Paris.
Virginie Efira as Mia in Souvenirs of Paris. Photography: Dharamsala/Darius Films/Pathé Films/France 3 Cinema

Winocour is part of a cohort of French female directors (including Julia Ducournau, Céline Sciamma, Mia-Hansen Løve, Audrey Diwan, Rebecca Zlotowski and Katell Quillévéré) experienced enough to have achieved status in the industry, but radical enough to continue to pushing formal and thematic boundaries. What she shares with many of them is a strong interest in the body as a site of struggle and control. Winocour’s full headlamp smile hides what she says is an unusual physical sensitivity: “I’m pretty hysterical in the sense that my body reacts to everything.”

She links this reactivity to the fact that she has been blind in her right eye since birth. This was due to the presence of a mole in his retina: something that was inoperable at the time and which led to the irreversible atrophy of his optic nerve. She wore an eye patch to school to prevent her from having lazy eye. Now, the imbalance is barely evident, other than her tendency to be livelier on that side of her face, as if overcompensating. But it scarred her psychologically. “It’s linked to a feeling that I had strongly in childhood and adolescence, of a kind of marginality in the sense of never having known what it is to see with two eyes.”

Trauma is Winocour’s leading subject. His 2012 feature debut, Augustine, a sweaty and gripping blend of science and eroticism, follows 19th-century neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot as he probes the source of his patient’s violent seizures. The subject arose from her graduation project at the Fémis film school, and she says her research became a “Pandora’s box” she couldn’t help but dip into; she ended up transposing her eye condition onto the main character, who is paralyzed for a time on one side of his face. Winocour’s heightened attention to sound influenced his 2015 follow-up, Disorder, which put us in the cacophonous, post-traumatic stress disorder-ridden headspace of an Afghan veteran turned bodyguard. Proxima, about an astronaut en route to Mars trying to preserve her relationship with her daughter, tapped into another psychic wound: Winocour nearly died after giving birth prematurely.

If the body always remembers, then the trauma runs deep in Winocour’s genes, beyond his own life. Her paternal grandfather was an Auschwitz survivor, a Ukrainian Jew who met his grandmother in Paris just after the war, when the latter was trying (unsuccessfully) to find her own parents. He was not, says Winocour, an advocate of Paris Memories’ idea that remembering and sharing heals. “He decided to cut himself off from associations [with Jewishness]. He spoke very little about what had happened and we weren’t even allowed to speak about it to other people because he was afraid of the return of anti-Semitism. He thought it was good that our name could pass for a French name.

Her granddaughter, however, did not follow the same path. In Russian and Ukrainian, Winocour means something like distiller, and that’s exactly what his films do: reduce trauma to a fundamental and defining essence for his characters. His films give the impression of wanting to be genre affairs, but are diverted from conventions, too fascinated by human frailties and scars. There’s something oddly assertive about that, and maybe it’s also coming from his grandfather. “He was an extremely cheerful person, possibly the happiest I have ever met.” Without realizing it, she has rolled up the sleeves of her T-shirt into a makeshift vest, ready for action. “He transmitted to us a vital force and a thirst for life quite intense.”

Paris Memories is out August 4.

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