2023 is shaping out to be the year of Virginie Efira, at least as far as American audiences are concerned. Other People’s Children blessed theaters in March, and Madeleine Collins will arrive in August, all lauded leading roles for the Belgian star. This month, Revoir Paris comes to satiate Efira fans, gleaming with the promise of César gold, for this picture finally won her the prize oft called the French Oscar. Written and directed by Alice Winocour in tribute to her brother, the film, also known as Paris Memories, considers the aftermath of a terrorist attack not unlike those that befell the French capital in November 2015…
The City of Paris is blue and red like emergency lights, the twin to siren red. Blue is nobility. For Kieslowski, it was freedom. For Jarman, blue was what’s left at the end. Cézanne thought blue gave other colors their vibrancy, so some amount of it was needed in every painting. Blue sky, blue sea, azure rhyme into infinity, the color of sadness in Anglophonia, or perchance the hue of peace for the Japanese. Watch Winocour’s Memories and see it bleed as ink dropped on water, tendrils of pigment suffusing the liquid until it’s all a cyan haze. And thus, the screen screams saturated indigo. Is it a state of mind, or the state of a mind lost?
Whatever the answer, it all starts on a night like any other, life normal in the city of lights where Mia occupies her days translating Russian into French, vice versa, and all that jazz. She’s a woman at apparent peace, and tonight she wants a glass of wine before going home to her partner, Vincent, who had to leave their dinner early. So, she goes into the warmth of a café christened gold, comforting chaos in the swelter of people. There are Asian tourists taking selfies smiling, a birthday party around the corner, charged looks of possible desire across labyrinthine mirrors. There’s a fountain pen breaking, blue staining paper and skin, interrupting the yellow glow of the café.
A trip to the bathroom to clean the blue away reveals another dash of that noble cast, the light of a drier. Outside, though, another blue waits, more sinister and so dark it’s hard to register. Gun metal blue explodes the evening, shatters it, making grey smoke pollute the golden air, blood over the floor. The panic of sound and fury comes, silence intermittent, a memorable storm soon to be forgotten. For that is what Mia does. She forgets. Surviving an unexplained terrorist attack on the café, she’s a survivor whose remembrances are shrouded by a mind trying to protect itself. Three months pass, and her relationship is fallen, her body carrying a scar whose making she can’t recall.
The disconnection strikes between Mia and the picture of scar tissue in the doctor’s office as if the screen were exteriorizing the broken links inside. She’s like us, a spectator looking outside into herself, into Mia. Images remain, scattered though they might be, as do sounds. She wants to remember more, but that can’t be done alone. It takes two to tango and to dance memory back, though perhaps her pair need not be flesh and bone. A camera might do just as well, that lens that follows her to survivors’ meetings where cruel accusations get thrown around, reflective lies of those who, like Mia, navigate the difficulties of protecting themselves while yearning for truth.
Alienation rules the day, tomorrow, and tomorrow still, and the images reflect it. Astride her motorcycle, she floats through the world, above it, divorced. Even in visual terms, Mia’s often the only stable point as the camera dashes through Parisian streets, everything but Efira turned background noise, a rush of grainy brushstrokes disintegrating into nothing as soon as they pass through. However, in Winocour’s memory play, free-floating is not a permanent state. Step by step, the motorcycle flight fades to a more paced walk, the rest of the world coming into focus.
A recurring gesture finds the camera trailing behind its leading lady, only for her to stop her movement, us rushing forward as she turns, eyes searching something ineffable, almost meeting ours. Are we the memory that she chases? Are we chasing her, and she running away? Paradoxically, when the two become one, the camera shall detach from Mia like a baton passed. With a waitress comes the story of stolen kisses with an Australian stranger when both thought they’d die. Young Felicia remembers the night as she waited for her parents, who’d never come home, growing desperate to know what their last words were.
Trauma is shared, but it’s also an island-maker, everyone insular, lost in discordant tracks of healing processes. But we reach out, Winocour does, and so does Mia. We reach out, and memories reveal themselves puzzle pieces forming a mysterious whole. Paris is a web of such puzzling fault lines, the city’s collective soul splintered into a constellation of half-forgotten horror, grief, pinpricks of light in the night. When our eye wanders through the metropolis with no aim apparent, it seems to seek out those points burning dim or bright, that souvenir living on for better and worse. Mia is our start and our end, but this story belongs to more than just her.
Indeed, if there’s one big problem of Revoir Paris is how Winocour’s intentions don’t match her storytelling craft when it comes to pursuing lives oh-so-different from its central reference. In symbolic terms, Mia’s journey reflects a Paris discovering itself, postcard-ready sights slowly evaded, going deep into social inequalities and migrant worker abuse, racial lines drawn in the sand, implicit, terrible. Wanting to see the people that walk between the raindrops unnoticed, the film shows the limits of its investigation. The man called Assane is more symbol than person, even if the picture’s entire thesis rests on his shoulders. It’s a piteous failure.
Still, what works in Revoir Paris is too great to be overwhelmed by its founderings, the whole better than individual imperfections. Efira, in particular, delivers a performance much unlike what we’ve seen from her in other pictures. For an actress who’s grown into her status by providing clear visions of messy women’s interiority, vibrantly evoked and often painted in vivid splatter, there’s a fascinating blankness to Mia – purposefully so. In a sense, she’s an exercise in self-erasure cum self-erosion. Contrivances become natural reactions in her ink-stained hands, be it an unlikely romance or the sentimental eruption of an embrace.
The world shall never be the same for Mia or any of the survivors. The haunting of blue will follow them forever, but through Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography and Winocour’s keen eye, we learn to see the warmth contained within. It’s Renoir blue, painted waterlilies echoing a plastic jacket It’s the neon of storefronts lighting up Parisian streets, azure masks projected on transient faces. Ultimately, blue is the catharsis we need. Blue is the air between raindrops, where everyone appears to walk alone. But they don’t – not really. Ghosts travel along, hands holding the living, an odd solace in this Paris of memories lost, found, transcended.