Director – Alice Winocour – 2022 – France – Cert. 15 – 105m
A woman tries to recall her memories of a Paris terrorist attack – out in UK cinemas on Friday, Aug 4th
Were it not for a singularly unconvincing sex scene (as in, why are these two characters having sex?) about ten minutes before the end, this might have been one of my films of the year. That knocks it down from ***** to ****. That gaffe aside – and it’s a monumentally huge one – this is, otherwise, most impressive.
It starts off with Mia (Virginie Efira) in her Paris flat, feeding the cat, dropping and clearing up a glass, and talking with her partner Vincent (Grégoire Colin), a surgeon who heads up a hospital department. She rides her motorbike to her radio station workplace, where she has a gig as a Russian-French translator. Afterwards, in the evening, she meets Vincent in a restaurant for a meal, but he gets a call from the hospital and has to go back in. After a bit, she heads for home, but it’s raining heavily, so she stops off at another restaurant to have a drink and wait out the rain.
Just an ordinary day. Except…
While Mia’s there, a gunman enters and starts shooting people. She avoids the first bullets, but then the gunman keeps shooting people, and she plays dead, hoping he won’t suddenly decide to shoot her to be sure. Periodic bursts of gunfire remind her that he’s still there, still killing. Eventually, the police come and rescue the survivors.
Months later, she returns after taking time off from work outside Paris to recuperate. She visits the restaurant, to be told that there’s a weekly meeting for survivors of the attack, which is apparently useful for them, says the staff member dismissively as he tells her about it. So she goes along to that, meets Sara (Maya Sansa), the woman organising the meetings, and recognises people who were there on the night.
A young woman Félicia (Nastya Golubeva) who failed to meet her parents there who were killed there that night is desperate to find out all she can, including about a postcard of a detail from a Monet water lilies painting they wrote her. (Mia later accompanies her to view the painting.) Another woman, Camille (Anne-Lise Heimburger), accuses Mia of selfishly locking herself in the lavatory during the attack.
Mia is introduced to a man on crutches outside, who won’t come in. Hospital patient Thomas (Grégoire Colin) was injured in the attack and like everyone else there is trying to piece together his memories.
All that must be about the first twenty minutes. The rest of it is Mia trying to remember exactly what happened that night. Details constantly invade her waking life, images haunting her. At one point, during a journey on the Paris Métro, she sees various characters who were there that night sitting or standing as her mind maps those faces onto the people who are actually present. When she visits Thomas in hospital, the corridor is filled with people she saw in the corridor to the restaurant loo that night.
She finds herself visiting Thomas more and more in hospital, at one point running into his wife (Dolores Chaplin) who doesn’t think the marriage will last because of the lack of shared trauma when one partner has been through something like this and the other hasn’t. That certainly rings true with Mia and Vincent, as she starts taking time away from their flat and their relationship, needing her own space to sort herself out and come to terms with what she’s been through. There’s also a hint that the call from the hospital that took him away from the restaurant that night may not have been the emergency he claimed, and that he may have had less honourable motives for leaving.
Mia, meanwhile, has a memory of a man holding her hand, whose doing so probably got her through the incident, and undertakes a long quest to find him, as much as anything to find out what happened to him as they were separated being put into the ambulances following the resolution of the incident. Her memory of a bloodstained apron leads her to suspect he was probably a cook there, and her search via Nour (Sofia Lesaffre), one of the few migrant workers to have been retained by the restaurant following the attack – the suggestion is that other have got out for fear of being detained by the police then discovered, and possibly deported by the immigration services, leads her to discover a Parisian underclass of largely undocumented, migrant workers from Senegal, Mali and Sri Lanka. The cook (Amadou Mbow), seen in flashback memory as Mia searches, is Senegalese.
This isn’t really interested in the perpetrator of the attack, but rather in exploring the incident from the point of view of the victims at the time and its subsequent effect upon them. By opening with an ordinary day in the life of a person about to undergo this horrific experience, it anchors the viewer in a normality of existence which makes the subsequent events all the more poignant, lending everything that follows a sense of bereavement not so much for those who were killed (because Mia was in the restaurant on her own; and while Thomas was there with work colleagues, he’s not the centre of the narrative here, she is) but for loss of the predictable, everyday life that everyone takes for granted in the normal run of events. That puts it loosely in the same area as Beyond The Mask (Jane Harris, Jimmy Edmonds, 2021), the British documentary which looked at the global pandemic in terms of the sense of loss of the everyday life taken for granted until it suddenly isn’t there.
Virginie Efira delivers an extraordinary performance as she delves into a wide range of problematic situations with emotions to match. If you can overlook its monumental sex scene misstep in the closing reel, you’ll feel like you were in the restaurant at the time of the attack, watch how different survivors attempt to cope and come to terms with the aftermath, follow the fairly torturous journey of one of the survivors and even get a glimpse into the Parisian social underclass into the bargain. Well worth seeing, despite its major flaw.
Paris Memories is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, Aug 4th .