Picking up the pieces of her life after a terrorist attack in Paris, Mia (Virginie Efira, in a César-winning performance) attempts to reconcile fragmented memories and relationships old and new in Alice Winocour’s powerfully nuanced drama Revoir Paris. Also starring Pacifiction‘s Benoît Magimel and Claire Denis regular Grégoire Colin, the film is another example of Winocour’s mastery of immersing her audience in the headspace of her characters, creating an empathetic portrait of searching for slivers of happiness and meaning in the wake of trauma.
While at Film at Lincoln Center’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema and ahead of the film’s U.S. release this Friday, I spoke with Winocour about her filmmaking process, being inspired by David Cronenberg and Agnès Varda, capturing the emotional intricacies of trauma, casting her ensemble, reactions to the film in Paris, and more.
The Film Stage: In all of your films you do an incredible job putting the audience in the headspace of your characters through really precise sound design and cinematography. Can you talk about that creative process?
Alice Winocour: Yeah. To me, it’s a difficult question to answer as it’s always a subconscious process. I don’t really know how that happens; I think I can only direct things that are related to my intimacy. I think maybe, sometimes, in French cinema there is an autobiographical way of telling stories, but I really couldn’t do this. To me, it really comes from an intimate feeling that I have never talked to anyone about. It’s something that comes from a really deep place. Then there’s the idea that the more intimate it is, the more it has to be in another world––like something really, really far away. For example, in Proxima, my film that is about astronauts, I really wanted to talk about the relationship between a mother and daughter and about my relationship with my own daughter, who was the age of the little girl in the film. And so it has to take place in space very, very far away from me.
For Revoir Paris, it was strange because it was the same. It came from this tragic night––November 13, 2015––and then about the national trauma. The night was special to me because my brother was caught in the attack and survived. I really built the film of the pieces of my own memories. It was not the story of my night or the story of the night from my brother’s perspective that I want to tell, but more a story of resilience––not a reconstruction of the events. Also, as part of an inquiry, I met with the victims and psychiatrists, and it’s always something that I think is exhilarating, doing films and discovering new worlds, as I did in Disorder. This was discovering the world of the soldiers getting back from Afghanistan. And my first film [Augustine] was a Pandora’s Box of discovering everything about hysterics. So there are always those both sides. I don’t know if it’s a method, but it’s always how it ends, that I become obsessed with an idea of a world and then I live in that parallel world during the time of the shoot.
During that time of development and research for Revoir Paris, what did you learn the most about talking with survivors or how a nation responds to trauma? Was there anything that really surprised you that you wanted to make sure worked its way into the film?
Yeah, two things. First of all, what was surprising to me about this community of survivors was how they work together to reconstruct their memories. It was really moving to see that everyone was looking for each other. Even if they had just seen someone for two minutes, they were asking if this person had survived, if they had been together. There was this idea of belonging to something that is greater than us, that is our common humanity. It’s something that is really fascinating and moving––is that in this case of trauma, there is the idea that it crushes the barriers between people. We’re all stuck in our worlds and it’s very few occasions where we get rid of this. One thing that surprised me is how strong this community was, helping each other.
The other thing was that––not to say everything was beautiful, as we see in the film, there was this woman in the film accusing her. It’s not an easy process to get back to life after that kind of trauma. What I thought was very strong was the passion for life that most of the victims had. I really wanted to express this vital energy that people have. I think they’re more obsessed with life. Of course, you are living with ghosts, especially for Mia, the character––she is in limbo so she can really see the ghosts. But the film is really a quest for happiness. What is happiness? And you ask more questions about your life. This question of happiness and life was more important than the question of death.
Alice Winocour and Virginie Efira at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2023. Photo by Arin Sang-urai.
You’ve mentioned two surprising influences for the film I wouldn’t have guessed: Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 and David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, which is really underrated. I love that movie.
Yes, as you see, it’s two references that aren’t really in the same family of cinema. I always have multiple influences that maybe also comes from my childhood when we had the VCR, my mother was recording movies and then sometimes on the same tape because she was falling asleep. Sometimes the beginning was another film. She was like, “Oh, I have to record this.” So sometimes there are very different kinds of stuff that I mixed in my memories because it was something I was watching.
Cronenberg definitely has a very strong influence on my work and with this character from Virginie, it was very difficult to perform and it was a tough part. She had to have post-traumatic stress disorder. You are not in your body anymore. It’s like having a new body, learning to live with it. And it’s kind of a naked soul. The film is really about her getting back to life. At the same time, she’s a ghost. She’s a kind of angel meeting people. It’s also a film of encounters. So she had to be present and absent. She’s a kind of spectator of her own memory.
There are many films about these horrible attacks that tend to over-politicize or talk more about the attackers. By being so in step with her character here, you’re actually making a stronger political statement. Through sharing a more personal, emotional throughline, one is actually living through what someone might be enduring and finding real empathy. Can you talk about the approach?
Because it’s not a film about attacks. It’s more a film about the traces that left trauma in the body and the mind and how you get back to life after this. Of course I wanted this inquiry to go through all the layers of French society. It’s amazing to me, with this kind of trauma, that people meet and they wouldn’t have met at all if this event wouldn’t have happened. That was in the scriptwriting as I was thinking, “Okay, I have to have very different kinds of people.” There is this seller of Eiffel Tower [merchandise]. There is this banker played by Benoît Magimel. There is an Australian guy. There are Spanish girls in the beginning.
Paris is a cosmopolitan city. I wanted to show different sides of the city, not only the tourist places. Because we see it through the eyes of Mia after this black hole of the attack; we had to cinematically express that she sees it differently. It’s not Paris, really––the real Paris. The soundtrack was also very important for me in this way, with the sacred music of Anna Von Hausswolff, the Swedish composer, with this organ, which makes things a little gothic and weird. At the same time, there are the [bird’s-eye view shots] of the city. At first there is this shot of the incandescent boulevard. There are also other shots in the film from the top, as if she was not in her body. The whole film had to be fragments. It’s simple storytelling, but we had to get this feeling of an exploding mirror and memories. It’s a kind of a puzzle in a sense and she tries to put the pieces together.
Yeah, I love the quick flashbacks where you just see a few seconds of the birthday cake.
It’s a way to recreate, cinematically, what a psychiatrist calls involuntary recurrent memory, which is not flashbacks. It’s more like a revival of the scene, what happens to PTSD victims, a kind of post-traumatic memory. It’s really like it happened. Sometimes it’s just for one second you have an image or a sound and you are suddenly there. The trauma scene is still alive in your head.
That comes across really effectively. Could you speak about the process of casting the ensemble? Virginie is great, but it’s quite an impressive group of actors including Benoît Magimel and Grégoire Colin, as well as Amadou Mbow, who I was introduced to in Atlantics.
It was important to me that it would be a Senegalese actor from Senegal, not just from France. But also different actors from different countries. It’s also something I did in Proxima, to have different actors coming from German cinema or Russian cinema or American cinema, like Matt Dillon. I always like to mix actors from different schools, people coming from theater. It also creates something really cool to find a common language, the language of the film and the world of the film. I really loved working with Amadou Mbow. Concerning Virginie, what I like is that at the beginning she’s this translator and she’s really grounded. You can really connect to her. I tried to not make her seem elite. It’s people living in Paris that you can relate to, connect to.
Benoît is someone who is so famous in France but also because he was an actor when he was a child; we have this feeling that we have grown with him. I felt really lucky to have a couple of actors like this. I think they raise empathy and it’s really what I wanted to express in the film: to be with them and to film with them what they have experienced. It’s also why the attacks are at the beginning, to feel emotionally what it is to be in a restaurant and then in a second to feel like you are in a war zone. It was a tough experience, the shooting. I wanted her to have no makeup, to be naked––to have a naked soul, to really see her face. My producers were really happy about this––she has just one outfit the whole movie. [Laughs] This leather jacket, as if she’s not really there. She’s a kind of angel. What I liked in the love story is they have common bonds. That’s how they connect. The love scene was really beautiful to shoot. To find this connection that was really fragile.
Speaking to the reaction to the film, have you spoken to any survivors who have seen it? What was their response? And in Paris in general? It’s a city symphony of a movie, in a way.
There were really strong reactions and from the beginning in Cannes. It was also the first time my brother was seeing the film and some victims as well. So it was really moving. The box office was really great in France, so we had really moving screenings with people staying in the cinema talking about the film, but also where they were at the time and starting discussions. It was a warm feeling of this community, of people together in the cinemas. At the same time, I had also very strong reactions from people that were not victims of the attacks, but other traumas, like Ukranian refugees in France who connect. As I said, it’s about the traces of the trauma and how you get back to life and traumas of being confronted by death or the death of someone close.
Many people told me very, very moving stories, including other situations, like some who had lived through sexual traumas or being in a fire, many stories that were really so emotional. The film is really a path of resiliency and goes towards the light. Everything that the terrorists wanted to destroy––the link between people’s lives and the happiness––I wanted the film to exhale all of those feelings. It was really rewarding to see the feeling in the screening rooms.
Closing out, it’s been a year since the film premiered and I was wondering what you’re working on next.
I’m finishing the writing of a horror movie. I had been writing it during lockdown. It’s a new direction, but I feel really at home with a horror movie, from Psycho, which was my childhood film as I was watching it several times a day with my brother––the one was at the attack, by the way, who is a cinema teacher now. And Cronenberg as well and Dario Argento films, I had seen so many during lockdown, rewatching the films that I had seen as a teenager and when I was studying cinema. For my first film, I was also really inspired by all this dark romanticism. Gothic atmosphere is something I really appreciate in literature and cinema, so I feel really at home in this world of horror. It will be an English-language film and it will be shot in Switzerland with an international cast. So I really look forward to it. I hope to shoot in January, but you never know what will happen with the production.
That’s exciting. Did you see Crimes of the Future? I was curious how it was received in France, because in America it was under-appreciated
I know. It’s not a film that was appreciated, but I really love it. I saw it alone in the cinema in Paris in the morning at 10 a.m. and it was a huge cinema. But I keep thinking about this film. As a great admirer of Cronenberg, I think it’s a very, very strong film and particularly love the kissing scene with Kristen Stewart. “The old sex.” I really love the scene. The experience itself, being alone in the screening room, was so scary and it was cool for the film.
Revoir Paris opens in limited release on Friday, June 23 and will expand.