Paris Memories: an ambitious but flawed drama

Despite a compelling lead performance from Virginie Efira, this exploration of a survivors’s experience in the aftermath of a terrorist attack feels glibly schematic.

3 August 2023

By Jonathan Romney

Paris Memories (2022)
Sight and Sound

Alice Winocour’s Paris Memories depicts one woman’s experience of an event clearly based on the Paris terrorist attacks of November 2015. Mia (Virginie Efira) is wounded in a restaurant shooting much like those that happened near the Bataclan theatre. She later embarks on a process of psychic healing, attempting to retrieve her erased recollections of that night.

While the English title is awkwardly evocative of cosy nostalgia, the original Revoir Paris – ‘to see Paris again’ – suggests both recapturing something lost and seeing the city afresh. The film very much attempts the latter, as Mia discovers a Paris usually hidden to the eyes of the white bourgeoisie. Piecing together her memories of the attack, Mia realises that she shared a hiding place with an African restaurant worker, and tries to find him. But the staff who survived have disappeared, written out of the event: they were mostly immigrants, hired outside the official system. Mia’s search for the missing man is a project of reconciliation and of learning, as she discovers the gulf between the city’s privileged and its excluded. This is a worthy project on Winocour’s part, even though this part of the film can’t quite shake off a tinge of middle-class social tourism on the wrong side of the tracks.

Although on a smaller scale than Winocour’s last film Proxima (2019), about a woman astronaut, Paris Memories is the director’s most ambitious drama in terms of the complexity and weightiness of its themes. But, for all its noble intentions, it doesn’t quite come off. Mia’s slow-building relationship with fellow survivor Thomas (Benoît Magimel, personably sly) feels like a sop to audience expectations, while the fraying of her relationship with her doctor boyfriend Vincent (Grégoire Colin) might have been better worked through. A more intriguing theme is Mia’s anxiety that her partial amnesia may be covering ignoble behaviour on her part, as per one woman’s angry accusation – but this thread yields only a desultory resolution.

There are also some clumsy directorial choices: inconsistent use of voiceover, by Mia and others; over-reliance on slow motion; the Shyamalanesque moments when Mia glimpses the dead. While Efira is too often required to stop in her tracks, gazing ahead in blank-faced realisation, this doesn’t mar an altogether compelling performance. One of the most reliable presences in current French cinema, Efira characteristically radiates approachable warmth as a screen Everywoman. Here, her easy glow at the start provides sharp contrast with Mia’s stunned sleepwalk later, giving both psychological emotional substance to a film that, however honourably intentioned, can feel glibly schematic. 

 ► Paris Memories is in UK cinemas from 4 August.  

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