It’s over six years since the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris that ruptured the country’s national consciousness and political agenda, but the events are only gaining currency for European filmmakers. This year’s Berlin festival brought us Isaki Lacesta’s “One Year, One Night,” an impressionistic reflection on survivor’s guilt in the long-term wake of the Bataclan nightclub massacre; at Cannes this year, Cedric Jimenez’s thriller “November” takes a more procedural approach to the aftermath. Another Cannes selection, Alice Winocour’s fictionalized but plainly Bataclan-inspired “Paris Memories,” effectively splits the difference, delving into a survivor’s damaged psyche following a mass restaurant shooting in Paris, but giving her a linear, investigative course of healing, as she tracks down sympathetic strangers to help disentangle her memories of that night.
It’s a modest film with a heart very much on its torn sleeve, given force and ballast by another fine dramatic turn from the hard-working Virginie Efira. If centering the story on a fictitious tragedy frees Winocour from some of the moral and political challenges of dramatizing raw real-life wounds, “Paris Memories” nonetheless feels thoughtfully shaped by recent history and France’s response to it: In promoting the film at its Directors’ Fortnight premiere, Winocour has explained how her original screenplay was inspired by her brother’s experiences as a Bataclan survivor, as well as the forums and message boards devoted to the accidental community created by the atrocity. Audience interest will be concentrated closest to home, but international distributors may be drawn by film’s topical subject and recognizable talent, as well as a bracingly hopeful, emotionally open tone.
The film tells us relatively little about its protagonist Mia (Efira) prior to the night that stalls and forever alters her life: We gather that she works as a high-level translator in Paris, and is in a stable if sparkless relationship with doctor Vincent (Gregoire Colin), zipping briskly between home and work appointments on a sleek motorbike. But we gain little sense of her inner life and social circle prior to the evening she heads alone into a bistro for a drink, after Vincent breaks off a scheduled date night to work, and is subjected to a sudden, startling act of terrorism. That feels deliberate: After the tragedy, Mia herself can scarcely remember what her life was before juddering rounds of gunfire set it off course, killing many and leaving others like her unable to escape a debilitating spiral of grief, guilt and enduring, echoing shock.
Winocour stages the attack itself with vivid restraint, using clattering sound design rather than grisly imagery to convey the horror from Mia’s panicked, floor-bound point of view. (Julien Lacheray’s editing, softly incisive throughout, especially comes into its own here.) There’s more than just sensitivity and good taste behind this decision: That restricted perspective carried key blind spots that make the disoriented Mia — and, in turn, the audience — less than certain of what exactly she did and saw in the moment; until she can recover a complete memory of the events, she can’t see past them. That leads her nervously to a survivors’ support group, where she encounters conflicting recollections of the night, and forms a gradual bond with the injured Thomas (Benoit Magimel) — their intimate rapport building in inverse proportion to her growing rift with the frustrated Vincent, who simply can’t understand her resistance to moving on.
The film’s love story is perhaps its most overstated component: Efira and Magimel are a wry, winning pair to root for, but their dialogue articulates the film’s larger themes of catharsis and recovery a little too pointedly, while the visual metaphor of their shared scars — the focal points of a tenderly sensual love scene — is underlined with a heavy hand. More subtly drawn, and even more affecting, is Mia’s nagging, circuitous quest to find the identity of a stranger who clasped her hand in the moment of crisis: “Paris Memories” knows the value of fleeting human connections as well as deeper soul attractions, and this seemingly futile (but to Mia, absolutely critical) feat of amateur detective work builds to a most moving payoff.
Hot off showy, tour-de-force turns last year in Paul Verhoeven’s “Benedetta” and the Venice premiere “Madeleine Collins,” erstwhile comedienne Efira continues to impress with her expanding dramatic register. In “Paris Memories,” she works in a lower, more tentative key, sympathetic to Mia’s own guarded emotional state, working out her feelings at the same rate that she works out her immediate past. It’s a portrait of conflicted, isolated womanhood, protecting herself while gradually opening out to the world, to file alongside Eva Green’s superb lead turn in Winocour’s last film, the astronaut-training character study “Proxima” — another work that, like this one, seeks out the delicate emotional details of a subject usually filmed with brasher, more self-important sound and fury.