“Revoir Paris” – For the first time [MOVIE REVIEW]

Virginie Efira. Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

Immersed in the effect a tragic event holds over memory, denial, shame, self and the ability to move on, Alice Winocour’s “Revoir Paris” is that and more. Delving into the life of Mia, a survivor whose memory has been erased by the horrific night when she was one of the few to come out alive when a terrorist systematically shot and killed almost everyone in a local cafe.

Virginie Efira as Mia. Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

Three months on and Mia is still in a daze, unable to continue in her job as a Russian translator and coasting uncommunicatively with her husband, a physician, who, that fateful evening, cut short their planned dinner out and left her on her own. Knowing that she needs to find a way to move on and confront her demons, she decides to return to the scene of the crime, hoping it will jog something loose. 

Entering the cafe, she encounters a group of survivors who meet once a week for support. No one looks familiar and, worse, a woman confronts her implying that Mia was responsible for some of the deaths because she had locked herself in the bathroom, preventing others from finding safety. Aghast, Mia has no recollection of this, questioning her own actions for the first time. A man knocks on the window to get her attention. Thomas, another victim, remembers her from that evening. He was there celebrating a birthday with work friends and had made eye contact with her. She doesn’t remember him, but a vision of a birthday cake with sparkling candles emerges. 

Benoit Magimel and Virginie Efira. Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

Thomas is more visibly damaged, walking with a cane, his mangled knee a reminder of that evening. He’ll undergo more surgery soon, hoping that the doctors will be able to return mobility to that leg. Unlike Mia, he remembers every second of that night when two of his colleagues were killed. There is something about Thomas’s positive outlook for his future and his desire to move forward that attracts Mia. Visiting him in the hospital before his surgery, she takes inspiration from his personality. Introduced to his wife, Mia is suddenly off base, even more so when his wife tells her that as a couple they will never recover. It is a major life event that they will never share; she recognizes that this experience has uprooted whatever had been holding them together. Acknowledging that the underpinnings of her bond with Thomas may have been shakier than either had recognized is eye-opening to Mia. 

Returning home to her husband, Vincent, Mia admits that she has misgivings about their relationship. Vincent has been supportive but she also recognizes that he lacks the necessary patience to see this through. She had taken refuge at that cafe after Vincent had abandoned her at dinner, citing an emergency at work. Now, confronting the realities of the situation, he admits that there was no emergency and, as she surmised, he was meeting someone. Mia, needing distance and more time to heal, moves out. Slowly her memory returns and a missing piece falls into place when she remembers that someone from the cafe’s kitchen took hold of her, protected her and kept her safe. All she remembers is his apron and a small tattoo on his hand. But unlike most of the victims, the majority of the kitchen staff did not make it to the official list of survivors. They were illegal immigrants and not on the books; most disappeared into the night. She is determined to find him, no matter how elusive he might be. She cannot go on if she can’t thank the man who saved her.  

Winocour has given us an in depth character study of a woman in mourning, not just for those who died around her but also for the parts of her self that had died before the catastrophic event. Everyone mourns differently and Winocour also gives us their portraits, if only briefly. She takes us along on Mia’s journey through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Wordlessly, Mia returns again and again to the scene of the crime, like so many of the other survivors. But it is Thomas in his willingness to confront his demons and challenge her to do the same that helps move her forward in starts and stops. Her face shows her determination to advance and her fear of what she might discover about herself. Undeterred by the roadblocks set up to prevent her from finding the unknown illegal who saved her life, she methodically follows every clue, walks the streets of a Paris previously unknown to her, gradually overcoming her fear of the unknown. Unafraid, she has faced worse dangers and come out the other side. Dead end follows dead end, but she refuses to quit. Exhausted, she cannot give up. The key to her future is in the thanks she must give to this illusive individual. Even when she discovers his name, she comes no closer.

Benoit Magimel and Virginie Efira. Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

Character depth is at the root of this film. There is no action, just snippets of that dark night when the world stopped for both the victims and survivors of this attack. What we experience is the raw emotions of those who came out the other side; the unspoken anger and hurt, registered in their eyes, their body language and occasionally their harsh tones. The guilt, played out in the faces of Mia and Vincent, the former for surviving and the latter for his lies and abandonment, reveals more about who they are than any amount of dialogue. Thomas is the expositional glue that bridges Mia’s life before and after. He and his wife, in her own way, know exactly what lies ahead for both of them personally and emotionally. They are the pragmatic faces of how tragedy binds and tears apart. Mia is on that journey and we follow her as she soundlessly but determinedly follows the path that Thomas knew how to lay out for her.

Winocourt’s actors play their parts beautifully. Grégoire Colin as Vincent is collateral damage of his own making. Appearing supportive, Mia’s physician husband is full of secrets, all of which he considers benign until they are no longer. Wracked with the guilt of actions that inadvertently led to Mia’s presence in the cafe, he just wants to move on with her and continue what they had. Colin communicates his cluelessness in his frustration that his support remains unacknowledged. In his own way, as we watch him try to pick up the pieces, he’s made her recovery all about him, but not in the way that it really is all about him and his actions. His muted understanding at her decision to leave is offset in the end by his anger when she refuses to move back to their apartment. Thomas, played by the always wonderful Benoît Magimel, is the underlying storyteller. It is through him that Mia learns what happened and who she is, but more importantly, he helps guide her to who she can become. Remarkably, Magimel’s Thomas has no character development, expositional features rarely do, but he makes it unimportant. When we meet him, he is already on the road to mental recovery and is there to help Mia on her path. It is something of a thankless role but Magimel is an actor who is magically capable of being more than the sum of his parts. 

Virginie Efira, Mia, won the César (the French equivalent of the Oscar) for this role. As she proved most recently in “Other People’s Children,” Efira needs little or no dialogue to communicate what she’s feeling. Her expressive eyes are truly the window into her characters’ souls. Anger, pity, desperation, defiance, empathy all play out in a flash across her face. She invites us into her journey and keeps us riveted until the end.

Winocour, who also wrote and directed “Proxima,” (Proxima) is particularly adept at creating complex female characters. Her Mia is just such an individual. Winocour knows how to slowly build a situation seen through the eyes of her protagonist until it is impossible to turn away or, in the end, see it from anything but her own perspective. She is certainly a director I will follow in the future. Her cinematographer, Stéphane Fontaine (“A Prophet”), has made Paris into a character in the film. No Eiffel Tower, no Champs Elysees, no Opera; just the everyday neighborhoods of the people who live, work and eat there. Where Mia lives and walks is consequential to her healing. 

“Revoir Paris” can be translated in several different ways – “Return to Paris,” “Revisit Paris” or “Re-examine Paris.” All apply to Mia’s journey to forgiveness and healing. This is Mia’s Paris.

In French with English subtitles.

Available July 25 on VOD 


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