THE STORY – Three months after surviving a terrorist attack at a bistro, Mia is still traumatized and unable to recall the events of that night. In an effort to move forward, she investigates her memories and retraces her steps.
THE CAST – Virginie Efira, Benoît Magimel, Grégoire Colin, Maya Sansa, Amadou Mbow, Nastya Golubeva, Anne-Lise Heimburger, Sofia Lesaffre & Clarisse Makundul
THE TEAM – Alice Winocour (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 105 Minutes
All motion pictures are acts of emotional manipulation. The pictures aren’t actually moving, for one thing, but more importantly, cinema relies on the Kuleshov effect (the name given to the phenomenon by which viewers of a film derive meaning from two sequential shots simply by virtue of their being placed sequentially) in order to work. The whole point of cinema is to manipulate your brain into thinking that two not-real things are related in a certain way, and the director’s job is to do so in a way that reveals the meaning they want to impart to the audience. With that said, Alice Winocour’s “Revoir Paris” (loosely translated into English as “Paris Memories”) is a fascinating Rorschach test for how much manipulation a given audience member can handle. While I ultimately found the film moving, its most striking passages are sure to be its most divisive, as they take the manipulation inherent in the art form right up to the line of being too much, going straight for the emotional jugular in a way that would feel cheap if it weren’t so obviously coming from a genuine place.
The film follows Mia (Virginie Efira, ditching the pious robes of “Benedetta” for a super chic leather moto jacket and jeans), a Russian translator currently working for a radio program. One evening, her doctor husband (Grégoire Colin) is called back to the hospital in the middle of a dinner out, leaving her alone for the evening. On her way home, she gets caught in a rainstorm and decides to wait it out in a café. An inveterate people watcher, Mia makes a note of all the people in the room around her. We see them all through her eyes – the older couple having a date night, the work colleagues celebrating a birthday, the Asian girls taking fun pictures of the escargot for social media – and then, in a flash, they’re all gone. A gunman enters the building and shoots the place up, killing almost everyone. Three months later, Mia is back in Paris following a stay at her mother’s. She doesn’t remember much from that evening, but she is still shaken, seeing the ghosts of the people she saw that night everywhere. When she finally works up the courage to attend a grief group for survivors and family members of those killed in the attack, she is set upon by a young girl whose parents Mia saw get shot, and another woman accuses her of locking herself in the bathroom. This sends Mia on a quest to remember precisely what happened and try to heal herself, aided by Thomas (Benoît Magimel), the now-claustrophobic birthday boy who made eyes at Mia that fateful night.
Efira does wonderful work as Mia, further cementing herself as the newest goddess of French cinema. The way the actress mixes hope, fear, and despair as she remembers more and starts trying to live again is incredibly effective, leading to a heartrending performance that single-handedly saves the film by grounding it in reality. While the film’s on-the-nose screenplay (“I have a scar,” Mia says to Thomas during a pivotal scene, to which he replies: “So do I.” Would you believe they’re not just talking about their bodies?) and old-fashioned score threaten to take everything over the top, Efira’s performance is just subtle enough to keep the film’s feet firmly on the ground. This is especially important for the film’s third act, which has so many reveals and left turns that it could have very easily felt ridiculous. Thankfully, Efira’s face is full of such genuine emotion that we feel everything she feels.
The problem with this is that “Revoir Paris” has a lot of feelings, and they’re all very big. Inspired by Winocour’s own experience helping her brother after he survived the shooting at the Bataclan Theater in the November 2015 Paris attacks, the film has a heart the size of the Eiffel Tower. Winocour manages to create a kind of mosaic of the city of Paris by giving voice to the lives of some of the other survivors – of different backgrounds and from different areas – both before and after the shooting, as well as an emotional portrait of trauma bonding and how it creates a community of people helping each other. Unfortunately, the film goes about these things in the most noticeable ways possible, employing a cloying score by Anna Von Hausswolff to underline these supporting characters’ voiceover monologues. Similarly, Mia’s visions of the dead café patrons are a trope we’ve seen many times before, and they aren’t used in a particularly interesting way. However, Winocour’s heart bleeds through every frame of the film, imbuing it with honesty and depth of feeling that most other films about trauma can’t match. Her personal connection to the material may have caused her to err too much on the side of apparent emotional triggers. Still, her craft is precisely calibrated to manipulate us into feeling how Mia – and, by extension, most (if not all) trauma survivors – feel in its aftermath, and it’s effective. At least, it was for me. But even while watching, I was constantly aware of how Winocour was achieving her goals. The unmistakable passion that went into the film was enough for me to go along with it, but those particularly sensitive to this kind of emotional manipulation would be best advised to stay away. “Revoir Paris” has strong individual elements, Virginie Efira’s performance foremost among them, and Winocour deserves credit for not going so heavy-handed all the way through. Still, the fact that the film gets as obvious as it does may cause some people to wish they could forget it all too quickly.