‘Paris Memories’ probes the act of recollection, through its ties to community and death

Alice Winocour’s latest film follows in the French tradition of psychological cinema, with trauma as the impetus for coming-together

In a flashback sequence from Alice Winocour’s new film Paris Memories, bereaved teenager Félicia (played by young actress Nastya Golubeva) recounts the night of her parents’ murder upon a terrorist attack at a Parisian brasserie. Having decided against accompanying them that evening, she sits before the television in her apartment as news reports trickle in. Félicia frantically texts her father at the restaurant, but he asks her not to continue, as it may alert the terrorists to their hiding place. With nothing more to do, she grasps her friend’s hand and hopes for her parents’ safe return—which never comes. The emotional scene is inspired by Winocour’s personal memory of the November 2015 Paris attacks, during which her brother was trapped at the Bataclan theater as a group of Jihadists killed 90 audience members.

Although Paris Memories was conceived around the time of that event—the deadliest assault on French soil since the Second World War—Winocour’s film is not concerned with the suspenseful prelude to or the procedural aftermath of the attacks themselves, like that portrayed in recent French terrorist films November (2022), Made in France (2015), and Nocturama (2016). Rather, the filmmaker examines the slow residues of recovered memory and trauma endured by survivors. Paris Memories centers on journalist and translator Mia (Virginie Efira) who, by sheer happenstance, survives that same terrorist attack, while countless others die around her. The onscreen massacre is brief and contained, though no less disturbing for its sudden rupturing of innocuous scenes of everyday life. The screen cuts to black and the narrative leaps forward three months—a wooly ellipsis during which Mia claims to have been recuperating with family outside of Paris.

In that time, the city appears to have moved on from the carnage, and returned to a veneer of normalcy. Yet, Mia remains haunted by survivor’s guilt and splintered memories of the attack; she retreats from her former life and live-in boyfriend, and begins to see ghosts of the dead everywhere. In search of answers, she returns to the restaurant, which hosts a grief group with other survivors, including Félicia and the crippled Thomas (Benoît Magimel). After hearing their memories of that night, Mia begins to recover her own, including the image of an immigrant stranger who held her hand. It is only by reliving these horrors that she discovers a deeper humanity embedded in the anonymous faces around her. With this new community, she learns how to live a life in the shadow of death.

Paris Memories’s historical inspiration and brooding characters might suggest Winocour’s predilection for autobiographical or confessional narrative—but her writerly interests actually lie at the opposite end of the spectrum, where Gothic fantasies of the exotic and uncanny converge with the sensorial pleasures of the genre film. Much like her previous works Augustine (2012), Disorder (2015), and Proxima (2019)—as well as the coming-of-age melodrama Mustang (2015), for which she was a co-writer—Paris Memories is a Gothic-inflected meditation on trauma, intimacy, community (both real and imagined), and death, populated by characters who often subsist in various heightened states of hysteria, shell-shock, or ecstasy.

The film also follows in a French tradition of psychological cinema, in which the perte de mémoire is linked to some spectral violence or suppressed trauma, much like with Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), Last Year at Marienbad (1961), La Jetée (1962), Muriel (1963), and Three Colors: Blue (1993). For Winocour, the enigma of memory lies in its ineluctable connection to both death and community—it is only through our recollections of the deaths of others that we begin to understand ourselves as part of the living, bound together by survivance.

Ahead of Paris Memories’s June 23 release, Winocour spoke with Document about her abiding fascinations with memory, trauma, and childhood games, as well as an intimate world of filmmaking that exists beyond words.

Erik Morse: You recently said of Paris Memories that, ‘[It] is really a film about memory, the process of memory-making, and how it’s reconstructed in your head all the time.’ It seems to follow—in a lineage of other French films—that link between memory and some sort of trauma or violence, like with Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad, and La Jetée, among others.

Do you think there is a uniquely French perspective on the relationship between the cinematic image and the act of memory?

Alice Winocour: Actually, I love all the directors you mention. Of course, they are all part of the history of cinema. I don’t know about the French aspect of those films. To me, they seem all very different from one another. But when I write or direct a film, I have many films in mind—it’s not like sampling, but, of course, it’s part of my cinephilic childhood. It’s something that’s inside me, an unconscious inspiration.

Erik: All of your films, including Paris Memories, make use of indeterminate gaps in time, which I think is essential to how you envision film narrative and emotion. I’m interested in what lures you back to these kinds of narrative ellipses?

Alice: I have a lot of trouble with [the script supervisor] on-set. Ellipsis is really important, even in scriptwriting, as you’re digging into the character and getting insights—really getting into the head and body of the character. It’s an extension of me at the time of the film. And it’s probably why there is this feeling of holes in the paths of the characters. I’m not so good at analyzing my own films. What I like about the process of making films is all the things you don’t know, and you try not to control.

Erik: As I was watching Paris Memories, I was by coincidence re-reading Maurice Blanchot’s 1994 short story, ‘The Instant of My Death.’ It’s about his experience of escaping death by firing squad during the Second World War. He writes of this moment of near-death, and the aftermath of ecstasy and lightness, of invincibility and immortality.

Alice: In the film, I was inspired by my brother. This idea of a ‘post-trauma’ is in my DNA. My grandfather, who I was very close to, was a survivor of Auschwitz. He spent more than a year in a concentration camp. That’s how he met my grandmother, who was looking for her own father, who was in a camp, but had died. They would not have met without the Shoah, without the war. So, it was really this idea that beauty can rise from tragedy; and also this idea of lightness—my grandfather was one of the happiest people I’ve met in my entire life. He was always happy, really happy. But he had lost his parents; he had experienced horror. I think this trauma [is] inherited, but you [have] to go beyond a trauma to have this resilient humor. Even if you go through terrible things, you have to think about the beauty of life. It comes from my grandfather. I know it helped my brother after the trauma of experiencing the attack.

“I never had an intellectual relationship with cinema. It was more like a safe place, where you feel comfortable.”

Erik: Mia seems to experience a similar ecstasy and immortality in enduring the threshold of death, and living on in a living-death. Did you conceive the film as a ghost story about living in the face of death?

Alice: I thought that, maybe, Mia could be a ghost—and at the very end, she could die. It’s not a very happy analysis, but [the film] could be like her limbo, visiting all the people shed’ met to find peace in her own death. I am definitely inspired by this Gothic thing, this dark romanticism—it is in my blood. In literature and films, it is something that inspires me. I loved working with [musician and soundtrack composer] Anna von Hausswolff. She had this Gothic influence in her work. It was something as far back as Augustine that I was trying to develop. My next movie, which is a horror movie, has a lot of Gothic themes. It’s a world I feel comfortable in.

Erik: I’m really interested in the roots of your fascination with the action and horror genres—like Psycho (1960), which I read you watched obsessively.

How do you think watching a film like Psycho as a child created a sense of fantasy and fear that influenced how you envisioned the world?

Alice: I feel like it’s part of my childhood, as if it were a childhood memory—like a summer memory. Because it was part of the games I played with my brother. We were playing games with the characters from Psycho. We had a kind of obsession with that film. It was more than a movie; it was part of a life. So, I find it very hard to even talk about it. I never had an intellectual relationship with cinema. It was more like a safe place, where you feel comfortable. It’s really the same one I feel when I go into a new film—it’s not reality, but it is really a parallel world. I felt this also with Cronenberg’s films, like Dead Ringers (1988), which [I watched] in my teenage years. So it was more conscious, maybe. They were talking about things that I couldn’t talk about, even to my closest friends. Really intimate, physical feelings.

Erik: Something else that you’ve said in the past is, ‘Some people make cinema in an autobiographical way, but for me, the more I care, the more it needs to be in another world.’ I think what you’re pointing to is a desire to feel some intimacy through fantasies of the faraway and the unknown—like what you’re describing in your childhood, playing games in the American landscape of Psycho.

Alice: Exactly.

Erik: There’s an exoticism to it.

Alice: Yes, but it’s also like the Brontë sisters, who were young girls having fantasies about Gothic worlds. They could dream of them. It’s more than writing. For French people, something that is intimate has to be autobiographical. I think you will know me better, by watching my films, than my best friend. With cinema, you can express things that you couldn’t express in words. Words can’t really express many feelings.

Erik: Cinema provides something more than just visual storytelling—it allows you a sensorium of feelings and sensations and internal activities, like we see in the characters of Disorder. There’s a heightened sense of reality there.

Alice: Now, when I look back at those films, I think, Maybe I missed some stories there. Maybe it would have been better if we knew more about this character—more of the backstory. Because I come from scriptwriting. Stories are very important to me in terms of cinema. But, yes, I like when it is physical.

Erik: There have been, in recent years, many French films about or engaging with the Paris terrorist attacks of 2015: the Eagles of Death Metal documentary; the action films L’Enquête, Novembre and Nocturama. I’ve always been fascinated by the way that real disasters or violent spectacles can quickly be transformed into images of pleasure on-screen.

What is it about cinema that permits us, or encourages us, to want to reimagine and relive these traumatic experiences, over and over again as a form of pleasure?

Alice: Actually, I spoke a lot about this with my psychiatrist. I feel like I always have these psychiatrists [to whom] I ask questions, because so many of my films are about PTSD or hysteria. I keep talking to them from film to film, and they become really close friends. One of them—a Swiss psychiatrist I met when I was writing Augustine—told me it was part of the resilience process. That’s why there are so many films that suddenly come out five years after traumatic events. Having these fictions around them is part of the process of resilience. Because, after a traumatic event, there is just the shock: There is no image, no sound. It is just a black hole.

Erik: I also wanted to ask you about your decisions to cast Virginie Efira and Nastya Golubeva. With Nastya, I was particularly moved, knowing about the real-life deaths of her mother [actress Yekaterina Golubeva] and sister [actress Ina Marija Bartaité].

Alice: For Virginie, I had an important conversation with her at the beginning of the film. I told her that I wanted her to be a naked soul—to be less rather than more. Her body is like an alien to her after she is traumatized, which was really difficult to perform. And I asked her to wear very little makeup, no mascara, nothing to hide behind—to be really broken inside. She was in the state of mind of a post-traumatized woman. I think it was also difficult for her, and I admire her a lot for what she did. Sometimes, I think less is more difficult than more.

For Nastya, I had seen her at the very beginning of her father’s [director Leos Carax] movie Annette (2021), and I fell in love with her eyes. I knew her mother, because I [had] wanted to work with her in a film. I met [Nastya] at Cannes, because I was part of the jury when she was presenting Annette. And we became friends. I asked her if she wanted to make this movie. And she was afraid, because this was her first film; she was in her father’s movies, but they were not large parts. So, we worked a lot—every weekend for many months. I felt a bit like the character of Mia with Félicia; that she was like [my] daughter. I feel like she has something strong, like her innocence; she has something really pure and rare. And in the scene in which she is holding the hand of her friend in front of the TV, she knew it was something that I had lived. I told her my own story. And she told me before shooting, ‘I want to be true to that moment. Is it possible to come with a real friend of mine, and to hold a real hand, not the hand of an actor? Because I want this moment to be really true.’ I thought it was a beautiful way to think about the film—it was about holding hands.