At the beginning of Memories of Paris, Alice Winocour’s thoughtful drama about coping with trauma following a terrorist attack, Mia (Virginie Efira) drops a glass of water. It shatters into fragments which Mia, sighing in annoyance, retrieves and throws away. It’s a seemingly banal moment, slightly uneasy by the evocative choice of music – Arvo Pärt’s pensive thought Brothers for strings and percussion – but this foreshadows Mia’s own fate. An elegant and confident translator who is fluent in Russian, she finds herself utterly shattered by the experience of being caught up in a terrorist attack on a bustling Parisian brasserie. Three months after the event, she begins the process of putting together her shattered memories of the attack, even as she realizes that some elements of her life are beyond repair.
It feels like after surviving something as horrific as a mass shooting, 40-something Mia is bent into a shape that no longer quite matches her old world – a theme that has parallels. with veteran battle dramas such as 2010’s impressive British indie In our name and the recent photo of Jennifer Lawrence Pavement. Reconnecting with well-meaning friends to celebrate her partner’s birthday, Mia viscerally recoils from the candle-adorned cake – it opens a door to a buried memory of the attack – and hides in place of her guests in the room. bath with her cat. Her partner, Vincent (Grégoire Colin), is sympathetic to a point, but he has his own layers of guilt to deal with for leaving Mia alone that fateful night, and his reasons for doing so.
Inexorably, Mia is taken back to the restaurant where, she discovers, other survivors – including Benoît Magimel’s charismatic Thomas – and bereaved relatives have set up a weekly support group. Her need to regain lost memories of the event becomes more urgent when another irate survivor confronts her, suggesting that Mia’s actions that night could have cost others their lives.
It’s an empathetic and unexpectedly hopeful take on the trauma of Winocour, who is best known as the writer-director of proximity and co-writer of Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Oscar-nominated Turkish drama Mustang. Stéphane Fontaine’s fluid camera captures the overwhelming, almost abstract experience of the attack from Mia’s point of view, her face pressed against the restaurant floor, her gaze limited to the strolling feet of a shooter, the prone bodies of the other guests and the glass of broken champagne flutes. But the film also puts its finger on the kind of little details that sink like shrapnel into the subconscious – a woman’s necklace; a fleeting moment of eye contact and shared fun; the irritating and ridiculous worry of a half-eaten pot of yogurt left in the fridge, perhaps now indefinitely. This last detail is taken from real life. Winocour’s brother is a survivor of the Bataclan attack – one of a series of coordinated terror attacks on targets including cafes, restaurants and the concert hall, around Paris on November 13, 2015. He then shared with her that the anxiety over the contents of his refrigerator was disproportionately great as he hid from the killers.
While the impact of an atrocity such as the Bataclan attack is a nationally shared collective trauma, Winocour is keen to emphasize that each experience is unique. In one of the more unwieldy elements of the image, brief footage shows an Australian tourist speaking to the camera, sharing his memories of hooking up with a waitress as they bled together in chilling uncertainty. But ultimately, the idea of connection – the comforting touch of strangers’ hands is a recurring motif – rather than destruction is a core message of the film. One character describes him as “the trauma diamond” – the unexpected positive that can come from such a horrific experience.
It’s an idea that may seem banal and reductive of the suffering triggered by the attack if it weren’t for the casting. Efira, of Belgian origin, who won a César for her performance in the film, is an actress of rare warmth. Even in her most broken form, her Mia is a dynamic presence, outward looking and in tune with the people around her. The spark between her and Thomas is more than a case of matching scars – it’s a thrill of recognition. But most powerful of all is a moment of closure: a searing, wordless eye-lock with another survivor near the base of the Eiffel Tower. Efira packs so many layers of conflicting emotions into her expression that it almost hurts to look at her.