"It's not about the terrorists": "Revoir Paris" captures fragmented memories after mass shooting

Salon 23.06.2023 18:54:13 Gary M. Kramer
Revoir ParisMusic Box Films

© Provided by SalonRevoir ParisMusic Box Films

With every mass shooting, there is an effort to make sense of what happened. Alice Winocour's ("Mustang") elegiac "Revoir Paris" (aka "Paris Memories") shows the ways survivors of a terrorist attack process their grief and emotions in the aftermath of a tragedy. The film is based on the experiences of her brother, Jerome, who survived the 2015 terrorist attack at the Paris concert hall, Bataclan.

"I did not want to make it thrilling; I wanted to create an abstract feeling and have it be a kind of nightmare."

Mia (Virginie Efira) is alone in a restaurant when she is caught in a hail of gunfire. Three months later, she has very little memory of the incident. As she recovers, she draws away from Vincent (Grégoire Colin), her partner, and becomes involved in meeting the other survivors, including Thomas (Benoît Magimel), whom she saw celebrating his birthday on the fateful night, and Félicia (Nastya Golubeva), whose parents were killed by the terrorists. She hopes they and others can help her piece together what happened. One woman tells Mia that she selfishly locked herself in the bathroom - an action that got others killed. (Mia is shocked by this claim and sets out to prove otherwise.)

"Revoir Paris" sensitively examines the issues of survivor's guilt and captures the triggers that are prominent with trauma. While Mia is told that memories will help her recover, the film does pose the question: Is it better to know - or not know - what happened? One thing Mia does know is that she cannot go back to her life before the attack; her relationship with Vincent will never be the same. After she realizes that a man held her hand during the attack, Mia searches for this nameless stranger hoping to find closure or at least the knowledge that he survived.

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Winocour spoke with Salon about her powerful drama and processing trauma.

I'm sorry that your brother suffered in the attack and hope he is coping better now that some time has passed since the tragedy. Can you discuss how his experience inspired you?

It was not just after the attack that I came up with the idea of the film. I was preparing to do another movie, "Proxima," which took place in Russia, Kazakhstan and Germany. When I came back home to Paris, I felt the city was wounded. I had never shot in Paris. From this tragic starting point, and from the conversations I had with my brother, who was in the attacks, I felt I had to make this film. I wanted to make a film about resilience. 

With all the mass shootings that happen around the world, what decisions did you make in telling this story? The first act is full of dread, the second is full of being haunted, and the last is full of hope. 

The story is built on the pieces and fragments of memories. It is an inquiry of Mia's own memory; it's like an exploding mirror. She is trying to patch all the pieces together, reconstructing a puzzle. She is looking for the hand that saved her. But she almost unconsciously resets everything. After the black hole of the event, she sees the city with different eyes. I wanted Mia's story, but I wanted it to also be a choral film - memories of the people she's meeting. Mia is in limbo; she has survived, her body is safe, but she's not really there anymore. She is like a ghost who comes back to life, a kind of angel visiting all the people who were with her. She would not have met them were it not for the attack. I tried to find people from different backgrounds so she could go through all the layers of French society.

Can you talk about staging the scene of the attack? I'm curious about what you showed, what you don't, and how you use this pivotal scene to inform your characters?

I needed the attack for the audience to feel what it is to be in a restaurant in Paris and then in a second, be in a war zone. That is what victims experienced. In the conversations I had with my brother and other victims I met with, it was the little details about their feelings. I wanted to film this from the single point of view, and not film a classical action scene with multiple points of view. She only sees the feet of the terrorists. It's not about the terrorists, it's about the traces of the trauma. I wanted this upside-down world you go through - the person in front of you falls, and you are in another reality. There is a black screen at end of the scene. It's not possible to represent an attack. I wanted to avoid historical reconstruction. There is no image to represent that kind of violence and barbary. It's unthinkable. I wanted a feeling of this violence from the perspective of a victim. I also worked with sound, because there are holes and silences in the scene as well as in the whole film. 

© Provided by SalonRevoir ParisRevoir Paris (Music Box Films)

When you experience trauma, you remember specific details but not the whole experience, or not in the order that happened. How did you represent that?

"My family was born out of tragedy. It's part of my DNA."

I wanted the audience to be lost in her memory. She doesn't know what is real. Someone says you were in toilet - and she thinks her own memory is faulty. Memory constructs and reconstructs things constantly. It's a detail or a close-up, such as the sound of the crackling birthday candles [sparklers]. I worked more with sound than image because in traumatic memory sound brings a traumatic image. The sound of the rain is very loud and that brings the image of that night to the characters. I wanted a fragmented feeling, that nothing is in the right order. It goes to involuntary reference memory. It's not a flashback in the sense of cinema, which is a classical memory in the right order. In post-traumatic memory, it's a layer of consciousness and a psychic break - suddenly, a sound or image arises, and you are back in the scene. It is a revival of the event as if your body was transported. That's what I wanted to express in the film with sound, images and editing. 

I am intrigued by the ideas in your film about Mia's wanting to understand what happened. I kept wondering - is it better to not remember a trauma, or can knowing what happened provide closure? 

There is no rule. I've talked with psychiatrists for my film, "Disorder," about soldiers with PTSD. I come from a family where my grandfather was a survivor of Auschwitz; he met my grandmother who was looking for her father who died in camp. My family was born out of tragedy. It's part of my DNA. A psychiatrist told me, "We are not equal in trauma." You come in a trauma with past traumas. People react differently to the same situation. I don't know if it is better to remember or not remember. It's what Thomas is saying to Mia, "Why do you want to remember this?" But it's an obsessional quest to find the hand she held. It's her way to survive. The victims told me in these kinds of situations, a tiny detail connects you to humanity - a look or someone smiling at you, or just a hand. It is your connection with the real world.

You show various characters presenting their perspectives on life following the attack - some stories involving folks like Thomas and Félicia, whom Mia meets and interacts with. I liked the prismatic perspective. Can you talk about this approach?  

It can't be just the story of one character. It had to be a vortex, with many stories, memories and pieces of memories. Thomas has a traumatic memory. I was also touched by the story of Félicia, who loves her parents [who die in the attack.]

There is also a young man who says he thinks about the attack every day even though he doesn't want to. What observations do you have on processing tragedy and coping with survivor's guilt?

Something I'm not often asked about is the "ghosts" we see in the film, and which Mia sees because she's in limbo. She sees Félicia's parents. It's an expression of her guilt. It's a very common feeling. I thought of "Wings of Desire" when we see the people in the middle of the city, and they tell their story to the camera. To me, it was important to have those moments. The story of the yogurt comes from my brother. He told me when he was hiding, if he was living the last minutes of his life, he thought about what people would find in his apartment, and this yogurt that was open in the fridge - that is what will remain of me. Felicia saying, "I don't want to fight with people because you never know when you leave someone what could happen." Because she had a fight with her parents before they died. Many details like this came from encounters I had with survivors. What struck me was this vital energy you have when confronted with death. You are living with a ghost, but it's a quest for happiness because you understand the fragility of life and you try to make choices or reset your life. COVID had a similar effect on us. What choices do I make?

Can you discuss the healing aspects of Mia's recovery? The film shows these folks coping though each other, websites, blogs and meetings. 

What is really fascinating to me with traumatic experiences is that I discovered victims helping each other. That is not to say there are not violent moments - like the woman who accuses Mia. But we are all equal, and when you experience this with someone, you become close, like siblings. In society today, we are stuck in our classes, and there are few occasions to get rid of those ties and escape from your world. This trauma breaks the barriers between these people, and they are helping each other. There is this strong community held together with this idea of reconstruction. You can't do it alone. 

How was making this film painful and cathartic?

I asked my brother for permission, and he said, "Yeah, if you don't do a sh**ty film, I'm OK." [Laughs.] It was hard. I felt responsible. Even though it was fiction, and not the Bataclan, it was inspired by and referred to that story. It was hard to film this during the trial for those attacks, which were happening at the same time. The ghosts were in the city, and there is a scene where they pay tribute to the victims before they put the flowers in the trash which was difficult to shoot because we did it where a tribute was done for the real victims of the attack. It's great that life goes on and people are back, but at the same time to put the flowers for victims in the trash and to stage this, was something I felt bad about. It is a scene that reveals complex feelings. 

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How was the film received in France?

It was a success in France. After the screening, people were staying and talked about where they were at the time of the attacks. I received strong messages from people who were not victims from the attacks, but post-traumatized people, like refugees, who recognized the feelings. They related to this quest of Mia and this journey back to real life. Everyone comes to the film with their own emotions and stories of trauma, but I want people to have this feeling of well-being and fraternity. 

"Revoir Paris" opens in select theaters June 23 in New York and June 30 in Los Angeles, with national expansion to follow.

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