What starts as a normal day for Mia (Virginie Efira) ends in a nightmare, as she is caught up in a terrorist attack on a Parisian restaurant which kills scores of people. Three months later, she is haunted by her loss of memory from that fateful night. Together with other survivors, she attempts to put the pieces back together so she can come to terms with what she really experienced, and move on.
Paris Memories is based on the Bataclan attacks of 2015; writer-director Alice Winocour’s brother was a survivor, and she made it with his experience of the trauma in mind. As well as her love for her brother, the film is fuelled by a palpable, moving love of the French capital. Many of the scenes are set against the background of a Paris that’s proudly, resolutely thriving.
Whilst it’s clearly a heartfelt production, Paris Memories is also subject to an overwrought score, and a tendency to embrace contrivance and unrealistic simplicity. All of the secondary characters Mia meets along the way gain some kind of emotional catharsis. The lost are found. All the potential areas of interesting ambiguity are tied up with a neat little bow. In a film that’s trying to be honest about the psychological ravages of living through something so horrifying, the preoccupation with narrative tidiness feels frustratingly hollow and sanitised. Even elements that start out promisingly, such as Mia’s chemistry-filled relationship with fellow survivor Thomas (Benoît Magimel), end up falling into disapprovingly familiar grooves. It’s hard to engage with the movie’s attempts to wrestle with trauma when Winocour seems determined that there’s going to be so little wrestling.
Adding a much-needed interiority to the proceedings is the ever-reliable Virginie Efira. An actor incapable of delivering a false note – just see her bewitching performance earlier this year in Other People’s Children for more evidence of that – Efira does an admirable job of selling the film’s more contrived moments, giving them a weight that manages to sometimes cut through the platitudes on the page.
A running theme of Paris Memories is how people who aren’t themselves caught up in a devastating event such as the Bataclan attack just cannot fathom the experience of those who were there, no matter how much they want to help; later in the movie, Mia’s long term partner (Grégoire Colin) exclaims, ‘I wish I’d been in the fucking attack!’, desperately frustrated at his inability to be there for her in the way that he’d like to.
And that problem – which is, to a certain degree, unavoidable – illustrates the lack that sits at the heart of the movie. Trauma is a complicated, jagged, brutal thing, and a deeply personal one. To dive into it properly, to reach for unaffected, messy empathy, requires a real bravery. Whilst Paris Memories offers a sensitive and sincere attempt to explore the aftereffects of the Bataclan terrorism on the people who survived it, it never manages to shake off the narrative gloss and make that exploration feel completely genuine. It remains a film that looks from the outside in.