The brilliance of Alice Winocour’s bruising drama lies in its tunnel-vision focus on the human consequences of terrorism. Although the film is loosely inspired by the Bataclan attacks, which claimed more than 100 lives in 2015, it is disinterested in the government protocol, assailants’ motivations or police inquiry (unlike Cédric Jimenez’s November, another recent release that treats these same themes with a glossy, copaganda spin). Paris Memories’ first-person approach – shooting the crescendoing gunfire from Mia’s point of view as she recoils behind a banquette – replicates the gut-wrenching horror of enduring a near-death experience, and the resilience required to pick yourself up and sort through the debris.
An actress of great restraint, Virginie Efira (Benedetta) understands that there are moments so cataclysmic in life that they separate all others into a ‘before’ and an ‘after’. Her performance, which was awarded a César earlier this year, is extremely powerful in its understatement. Mia’s gradual evolution over the course of the film takes its cues from the ebb and flow of trauma response: her original dazed expression transforms into practised calm, then genuine strength as she returns to the scene of the crime again and again, searching for answers. Winocour gives us insight into the character’s splintering psyche through sudden, jolting flashbacks that pierce the narrative in much the same way Mia’s past does her present.
Although this is a protagonist-driven story, Paris Memories structurally reinforces its own message of community-building by passing the mic to other survivors of the attack. The voiceover, initially spoken by Efira, finds space to incorporate the perspectives of the brasserie’s cooks, waitresses, patrons; each actor delivers their testimony with blistering vulnerability. Paris Memories is an emotionally searing exploration of the rippling effects of trauma, but it’s not all doom and gloom. With its emphasis on empathy and solidarity, the film demonstrates that the human spirit can be lifted by something as simple as a hand held in the dark.