Film Review: “Revoir Paris” — Remembrance of Trauma Past
By Steve Erickson
Despite the fragmented nature of the protagonist’s memories, everything comes together in Revoir Paris. It is as though her life was a puzzle to be solved.
Revoir Paris, directed by Alice Winocour. Screening at the Museum of Fine Art’s French Film Festival on July 9.
The first few scenes of Revoir Paris set the stage for the tragedy that follows them. Their very banality encourages viewers to feel that something dangerous is about to jump into the characters’ lives. Director Alice Winocour succeeds in making us feel anxious, but it is initially unclear why we need to be made uncomfortable. Why does the camera zoom in towards a bowl of apples? Why does organist Anna von Hauswolff’s score take on such an ominous undercurrent? Why does the editing emphasize forward motion so much, as Mia (Virginie Efira) rides her motorcycle to work and strolls down the hallway? When she heads to a restaurant afterwards, a man bangs into the glass behind her table, startling her and us with a loud noise
The answers come in the next scene; a massacre takes place in the restaurant. Winocour is extremely careful about how she depicts the mayhem. Revoir Paris is entirely uninterested in the killer himself; the story focuses on the violence impact of his actions. He isn’t even granted the dignity of having a motivation. Hell, the film barely even frames his body in a single shot so that we can see him clearly. Winocour embraces a fragmented perspective, focusing on what Mia can see as she lies on the floor. She can hear bullets fly and see the muzzle flash of the killer’s gun, but not much else. Her effort to stay alive reflects the film’s limited viewpoint — we will concentrate on the victims.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Mia’s life no longer makes sense to her. She dissociates at times, at one point she is almost hit by a car. Mia feels a sudden connection to the other survivors, though she grows particularly close to a young woman who wasn’t present at the massacre itself. Her parents were killed there though. A group of survivors forms a support group to meet in the restaurant every Monday, but Mia takes it upon herself to investigate the crime, trying to track down the man whose hand saved her. In the course of her examination, she learns about the undocumented immigrants who would’ve been deported if their presence made it onto the official police records. But the biggest mystery involves her own emotions, the shock to her inner life.
The subject of random gun violence has become increasingly popular. Revoir Paris looks back to a certain kind of “everything is connected” film that was popular in the ‘90s. Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, which constructs a fractured narrative around a bus accident in small town Canada, may be the clearest precursor to this healing approach. The visuals reflect the need to make sense of the senseless: the slick cinematography and color scheme, based around red and blue, suggest Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy. Egoyan and Kieslowski’s style fell out of fashion after it was bastardized by Paul Haggis and Alejandro Gonzales Iñarritu. Through its flashbacks, which are an attempt to represent the mind of a traumatized woman, Revoir Paris is an attempt to revive that cathartic approach to tragedy.
For Winocour, this film originates from a very personal place. Her brother was present at the attack on Paris’ Bataclan club on Nov. 25, 2015. While hiding there, he stayed in touch by texting her. But the killings here are represented as a collective tragedy rather than merely a personal one. In the director’s words, the only possible way to depict the aftershocks of the horror was to create a “choral film.” While Mia remains at the story’s core, the narrative also takes in the experience of others, especially Thomas (Benoit Magimel), a man physically injured by the shooting. Magimel brings a sense of humor to his performance that is essential. (In fact, Thomas’s playfulness about his disability recalls Patricia Arquette’s much kinkier character in David Cronenberg’s Crash.) A well-to-do banker, his life has been turned upside down by a lengthy hospital stay and a new dependence on others. Bullet fragments remain lodged in one of his legs. Still, he carries on an affair with Mia — after all, this is a French film — and pursues his desires, sneaking into a wedding to dance with her.
At its end, Revoir Paris returns to the image of the Eiffel Tower. The movie’s Paris is a nocturnal one, bathed in blue light and, accordingly, the cinematography is attractive yet frigid. Winocour’s ironic direction takes in the monumentality of the tower, but she also hones in on the poor African immigrants selling knick knacks to tourists underneath it.
Overall, the film is a bit too neat. Despite the fragmented nature of Mia’s memories, everything comes together. It is as though her life was a puzzle to be solved. The mood of constant unease becomes rather stately. No doubt in an effort to avoid charges of exploitation, Revoir Paris is a touch too tasteful. It would have been more powerful if its makers were willing to venture beyond the realm of the arthouse a bit more: one can learn from the vulgarity of Netflix’s true crime material without copying its callousness. (Winocour’s 2015 Disorder flirted with the action movie in its depiction of a more macho version of a similar character and scenario: a former soldier struggling with PTSD.) Efira convincingly portrays a woman who is somewhat detached from her own comfortable existence; but the result is that her trauma is held at a remove after the initial shooting. Still, there are effective moments when she shows us a woman struggling to escape her lack of affect and find meaningful connection with other people. The final minute of Revoir Paris affirms, “We were alive. I was alive.”
Steve Erickson writes about film and music for Gay City News, Slant Magazine, the Nashville Scene, Trouser Press, and other outlets. He also produces electronic music under the tag callinamagician. His latest album, The Bloodshot Eye of Horus, was released in November 2022, and is available to stream here.