Revoir Paris is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.
Alice Winocour's Revoir Paris (2022)—also known in the States as Paris Memories—is one of those films that thwarts expectations so nimbly that it almost becomes easier to describe what it is not than what it is. If I were to describe its premise, you would assume it was a film about terrorism and gun violence—but it's not, really. If I talk about its plot, you might reasonably mistake it for a detective story—which it certainly is, but not in any traditional sense. If I were to tell you about the characters, you might expect a love story—which is oddly closer to the mark, but only according to the most generous and delicate of definitions.
What Revoir Paris is, you see, is a film about a sensationalistic topic that deftly avoids sensationalism, and a film about stark, inhumane violence that locates and celebrates tiny, tender moments of humanity. Defying genre, eschewing dramatic contrivance, and avoiding platitudes, it is the rare film about extraordinary events that makes us feel we have spent time with ordinary people, and come out better for it.
Virginie Efira (Benedetta) plays Mia, a Parisian woman who works as a Russian translator and lives with her long-term partner Vincent (Grégoire Colin). One evening, riding home on her motorcycle, she decides to get out of a sudden rainstorm and have a glass of wine in a crowded bistro called L'Etoile d'Or. She is there only a few minutes—sitting in a back room, and barely even noticing the other patrons—when the sound of gunfire erupts. We see chaos erupt as a gunman enters, and people are shot, and Mia scrambles beneath tables for safety.
(The camerawork and editing in this sequence—and throughout Revoir Paris—are excellent: Winocour employs heightened tricks and tropes of genre cinema effectively, but always tempered by emotional restraint, and always in service of emotional authenticity.)
The brief and harrowing scene does not last long, before ending on a smash-cut to blackness. "What happened next?" we hear Mia narrate. "It is erased from my memory." When we come out of the darkness, we have jumped to several months later, as Mia is having the scar from her bullet wound—now nearly healed—checked by a doctor.
So we see only a minute or so of the sudden attack, but we later learn that Mia and the other survivors hid out in the restaurant for an hour and forty-eight minutes, almost none of which Mia remembers. Her quest to recover her memories forms the bulk of the film, and it does resemble a deeply personal detective story—a sort of post-traumatic existential noir—as Mia almost obsessively tracks down other survivors who may be able to shed light on the isolated images and sensory fragments she has retained.
She attends a support group for survivors and the families of victims that meets at the site of the attack. (The staff there has turned over almost completely since the attack, and the new staff seems both respectful and resentful about the bistro's becoming this odd mecca of mourning.) There she meets the people who help jog her memory and guide her to understanding how the world has changed for her.
There is Thomas (Benoît Magimel), a wounded man who was having a birthday party in the bistro. with whom Mia develops an affectionate flirtation. There is Félicia (Nastya Golubeva Carax), a rawly emotional young woman who lost her parents in the attack, whom Mia takes under her wing. There is waitress Nour (Sofia Lesaffre), the only surviving staff member who still works at the bistro, who can provide clues to unpacking Mia's elusive but vivid memory of a man in an apron who held her hand during the attack. All of these people, and many more, form a new sort of found family, sharing bonds that now seem stronger than any they can share with people who weren't there.
(The performances are all stunningly good—with particularly strong turns from Efira and Carax—and they are all the better for working so effectively through the admirable restraint of Winocour's screenplay, which eschews phony sentimentality and manufactured drama. Winocour—who co-wrote one of my favorite films of the last decade, Deniz Gamze Erguven's Mustang—has an effortless gift for creating characters who feel absolutely real with spare but surgically precise details.)
What's remarkable about Revoir Paris is how—though it is driven by Mia's desire to recover her memories—there is nothing morbid or ghoulish in the reconstruction. "Why do you want to remember?" Thomas asks Mia, but her quest is not—as it would be in a lesser film—to dwell on the details of the violence, or recover her repressed trauma, or figure out why bad things happen to good people. We see very little more of the attack itself, in fact, than Winocour initially showed us. And of the attackers—their identity, their reasons, their politics—we know, and will learn, exactly nothing. (Revoir Paris is certainly informed by the November 13, 2015 attacks in Paris, in which—as we discover here—several coordinated terrorist acts were carried out simultaneously across the city. But the film is careful not to tie this incident to any specific event or ideology.) Neither Mia nor Winocour is interested in dwelling on violence or interrogating its causes, only in finding a way to live with it afterwards.
There are moments when you think Revoir Paris might become a different sort of film. (At one of the survivors' meetings, a woman stands up and makes a startling accusation against Mia, one that threatens to put all her uncertain memories in a different light and throw the entire film in a darker direction.) But again and again—often in small and unexpected ways—Winocour defies expectations and manages to pivot the film back toward one central, if understated theme: kindness. Mia, we gradually realize, isn't obsessed with remembering the people who hurt her: she needs to remember the people who helped her. Though she may not even be aware of it, her quest—like Winocour's film—takes a remarkably healthy approach to violence and inhumanity: to process its trauma by focusing on small but vital moments of compassion, connection, and grace.