The frightening aspect of a memory is the idea that eventually everything will vanish and we’ll go back to things as they were before. But when you can’t let go of certain memories, does it mean it will never go away? Alice Winocour’s Paris Memories is a shattering portrayal of a woman living outside herself while learning how to heal from trauma.
Virginie Efira plays Mia, a french woman who works as a Russian translator in Paris. During a Saturday evening, she gets caught in a terrorist attack in a Parisian bistro. We follow the story as Mia tries to remember everything that went through that day. Most of her memories are gone and she is emotionally paralyzed by the trauma. The only memory she has is of someone holding her hand during the shooting. She visits the bistro and starts talking to people about that day in order to discover who was that person who helped her during the attack. There’s a support group for the survivors, but Mia isn’t sure if that’s how she wants to deal with everything that happened. She becomes emotionally distant in every aspect of her life, including in her relationship with Vincent (Gregoire Colin).
What makes Alice Winocour’s direction so poignant is how accurate the film is when it comes to trauma, because there’s no right way to deal with it. Much like grief, everyone deals with it in their own way, and the film showcases several approaches to this kind of process. While some attend support groups in order to open themselves to what happened, others may find comfort in being alone and dealing with everything they went through individually. Winocour is not interested in trying to explain how they are healing, she rather prefers to show us why. But it wouldn’t have worked if it wasn’t for Efira’s riveting turn as Mia. Through her career, Efira found herself in challenging roles in films like Sybil and Madeleine Collins, but here she gets the chance to show her most vulnerable side. The role may be a little thin if you look closer, but Efira makes the most of it. It’s an empathetic performance that brings hope to a world where everything seems lost. Not only does she have to go through her personal trauma, but she also finds herself somehow guilty for something she can’t even remember. Everything works so well because Efira is able to show the uncertainty and confusion of her character. She feels entangled by the attack. The whole world around her keeps moving and she’s still stuck in the past. But Efira doesn’t go for the melodrama. She rather works on the small moments because she knows it will be more effective in the end.
Winocour turns flashbacks into false memories. She plays with the uncertainty of the victims’ recollections, creating dreamy sequences that makes us question if what we are seeing is the truth or just part of Mia’s confusion. It gets repetitive after some attempts, but it’s still an interesting look. She’s also very careful with details. There’s not a single scene where Winocour shows us something that is irrelevant or indifferent to the development of the story. The whole sequence that precedes the attack is a masterclass in details. But what makes her work truly soars is how she turns Paris into the main character of this story. Every location is filled with meaning, as Mia wanders through the streets and realizes how much beauty there is. The whole approach can be seen as a love letter to the city, as Winocour tries to show that, even after everything that happened, it’s still a hopeful place to be.