Postcard from Cannes #5: The power of collective memory

Memories are an important ingredient in the scriptwriter’s repertoire when building characters and plots. The French film "Revoir Paris" uses subtle flashbacks to tell the intimate accounts of survivors of a terrorist attack and shows how they collectively learn to heal.

“Revoir Paris” (“Paris Memories”) by French director Alice Winocour was screened at the weekend as part of the Directors’ Fortnight selection.

The central character Mia, played by Virginie Efira, is caught in a terrorist attack on a Parisian bistro. She has forgotten most of what happened on that dark, rainy night, but she knows she needs to piece it back together in order to move on.

Although it is not a re-enactment, the film stems directly from the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, in which 130 people died and many more were maimed psychologically and physically.

It could seem awkward or premature to make entertainment evoking this tragedy, especially considering that the trial is taking place in the French capital, with victims and their families testifying since September 2021.

Winocour says making the film came not from wanting to sensationalise the event, but rather to tell the stories that were never told. She took inspiration from victims’ accounts, in particular, that of her brother who survived the attack on the Bataclan concert venue, where 90 were killed.

A wounded city

The siblings maintained contact for hours by SMS while police liberated the venue. Her brother introduced Winocour to the survivors’ forums online, and from there she built much of the storyline and characters.

She realised that her own memory had been rebuilding itself around what happened that night too, and it became a burning necessity to tell this story.

Winocour’s film does not linger on the attacks themselves, but rather paints a sensitive portrait of a city in mourning, uncovering layers of collective memories. The film provides a space to simply listen to what people have to say.

“I came across this very tight-knit community,” Winocour told journalists at the première on Saturday. “They were all looking for the people who had accompanied them that night, either by holding their hand or keeping eye contact. They wanted to know if these people survived, if they were OK, it was very moving”.

'Diamond of trauma'

Trauma, she found, brought people together, crossing social and cultural boundaries that wouldn’t have been crossed otherwise. These people needed each other to get their lives back on track, she says, and the only way to do it was to remember together.

In the film, Winocour uses the pyschiatric term “diamond of trauma”, implying that even in tragic events, positive things can emerge, such as human bonds created between survivors.

Benoît Magimel, who plays the lead role of Thomas, badly wounded in the attack, meets Mia through a survivors’ association.

“I understood why these people needed to reach out to one another,” he told journalists after the screening when asked about how his own memories informed him for the role.

“Even though I didn’t hear about the attacks straight away at the time, I knew the area of Paris well, and I felt deeply moved,” he says, adding that as more information came through, he felt shock, and was keen to explore this delayed sense of confusion and pain on the screen.

His character is overwhelmed by his memories and tries to forget them. He makes jokes and is not interested in delving into the online forums. He comes across at times as frivolous, but he symbolises the vulnerability of a man who wants to pretend he can move on and doesn’t need help.

But Mia is the opposite. She can recall nothing except fragments. She embarks on her own investigation in Paris to find the man who reassuringly held her hand while they were hiding in the kitchen pantry at the back of the restaurant. All she remembers is his tattoo.

Efira is remarkable in her poise, in a difficult role that has to incorporate a delicate psychological evolution. She is trying to hold herself together, but is constantly restlessness.

The sound of rain, the candles on a birthday cake, a face in a crowd, take her straight back to that fateful night. She sees ghosts of her fellow diners pass by her in the street.

Best form of love

For the director, the love story that emerges between the two lead characters is especially important to the film.

“This is the best form of love,” she explains, “to acknowledge each other’s wounds and scars and to heal each other”.

Through sharing their experiences, the characters rebuild their lives and “release themselves from the prison that is trauma”. They embrace their memories as part of their lives rather than running away.

“Revoir Paris”, also evokes a touching play on words, with the idea that through this healing process, Mia and Thomas can “re see” Paris, through “new eyes” as a place full of life rather than death.

"Revoir Paris" will be released in France on 7 September.