In this interview, Alice Winocour discusses telling a subjective story of coping with PTSD in her film Revoir Paris. Read our review of Revoir Paris.
This is the fourth interview with Alice Winocour that Seventh Row has published (after our interviews on Disorder, Proxima, and a career video interview). It builds on additional yet-to-be-published discussions we’ve had with Winocour and her filmmaking team about her work that we hope to turn into a book in future.
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In this interview, Alice Winocour describes Mia (Virginie Efira), the protagonist of her new film, Revoir Paris, as “there and not really there.” Having survived a Parisian terrorist attack at the beginning of the film, Mia becomes dissociated from both her body and the people around her. The film is about Mia’s external and internal journey to piece together her fragmented memories of the traumatic event in an effort to heal and reinvent her psyche and life. Sharing the haptic filmmaking and incredible sound design of Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here and the realism of Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, Revoir Paris is a fitting addition to the canon of great films about PTSD.
To piece together her memory of the night, Mia revisits the site of the attack, where a community of survivors regularly convenes to provide mutual support and help each other remember what happened. There, she meets a teenage girl whose parents died in the attack, a woman who accuses Mia of endangering others to save herself, and financial trader Thomas (an excellent Benoît Magimel), who remembers the entire event in detail. The film even occasionally breaks from Mia’s perspective to bring us into other people’s memories of the events. Mia forms an unexpected, tender bond with Thomas, both of whom are struggling to fit back into their previous lives. Together, they help each other put themselves back together and find a new path forward.
Mia’s psychological scars in Revoir Paris
Mia’s physical scars are minimal, but the psychological damage is deep. She’s a hollowed-out version of herself, which makes it especially hard to resume relationships with people who knew her before, especially her partner (Grégoire Colin). She looks dead in the eyes, and that vacant look is something Efira and Winocour worked hard to achieve. Unexpected things can set off her trauma. The crackle of birthday candles on a cake at a party immediately transports her back to the night of the attack, when Thomas had a birthday cake with candles that made the same sound. Her memory returns bit by bit in flashes, sometimes false memories, and sometimes very vivid fragments, like the image of a hand, the hand she held while she hid.
Revoir Paris is subjective storytelling at its best, putting us inside Mia’s damaged and traumatized mind. Even during the attack, we never see the shooter, and the scene we do see is untrustworthy. Details don’t make sense because what we witness is a version of Mia’s memory, which she’s already rewritten to cope. Driving through Paris by motorcycle, she encounters impossibly empty streets because it feels like she’s living in a different, lonely Paris. Even the Eiffel Tower is never seen as a beacon of light, but as a backdrop to a grainy night scene or as a trinket sold to tourists. This is Paris as Mia experiences it, not as it is.
In this interview, Alice Winocour describes Mia’s memories in Revoir Paris as an “exploded mirror”
Winocour likens Mia’s psyche and memories to an “exploded mirror,” and Julien Lacheray’s cutting is fittingly very jagged. Mia will be transported from one location in one scene to the next, without an establishing shot or preamble. It’s as if she, and we, don’t know how she got there. We hear the next scene before we see it, and are suddenly thrust into it. Likewise, Mia’s memories are often triggered by sounds, which bring us and Mia vividly and suddenly back to the restaurant on the night of the attack.
Mia is forever psychologically trapped in the restaurant, yet she must physically revisit it to exorcise the demons from that night. Walking down the hallway of a hospital will suddenly transport her back to the corridors of the restaurant. The transition from the real to the traumatic is jarringly quick in the sound and cut and like a creeping sensation: that hospital hallway is too dark for a real hospital, but fitting for the way Mia experiences it.
The line between the physical corridors of the restaurant and the psychological corridors of Mia’s mind is thus always murky. It’s a trademark of Winocour’s filmmaking, whose relatively realist films all have gothic undertones and portentous hallways. One of the most gifted filmmakers at creating emotionally resonant sound designs, Winocour pushes how she uses sound even further in Revoir Paris by making it an important story trigger. Even during the filmmaking process, imagining the sound came before imagining the image.
Winocour’s personal cinema has always been “far away” from being autobiographical
Winocour’s films are all deeply personal, but as Winocour explains, “the more it is intimate, the more it has to be far away.” Winocour began her directing career with Augustine (2012) a story about a woman, Augustine, with hysteria and her relationship with her physician, the famous Charcot, as she transformed from an object to a subject. Her follow-up film, the excellent thriller Disorder (2015), is about a soldier with PTSD returning to civilian life to talk about the PTSD she herself got from giving birth. It’s also among the best depictions of PTSD I’ve ever seen. Proxima (2019), a film about an astronaut preparing to go to space for a year and separate her daughter, partly expresses Winocour’s trauma of being separated from her prematurely born daughter by an incubator. A key scene in the film even takes place between mother and daughter who are separated by glass.
In this interview, Alice Winocour discusses moving toward a more autobiographical cinema in Revoir Paris
Revoir Paris is, in some ways, a departure, because its premise is so autobiographical: Winocour’s brother is a survivor of the Bataclan attack, and Winocour was in contact with him that night. Citing inspirations from David Cronenberg to the Brontë sisters to Dario Argento, Revoir Paris is also, in some ways, the closest Winocour has ever gotten to a horror film — though she’s currently writing her first real horror film. The aesthetic, here, perhaps provides the distance. The film continues Winocour’s exploration of traumatized bodies, how this makes people detached from their reality, and people whose bodily transformations lead to psychological ones.
Before the US release of Revoir Paris, I sat down with Alice Winocour for an interview about Revoir Paris via Zoom. Winocour discusses how Revoir Paris differed from Disorder in its depictions of PTSD, her research process, her approach to sound design, and how the film was equally influenced by Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone as Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire.
Seventh Row (7R): You always do in-depth research for your films. For Disorder, you spent a lot of time meeting with ex-soldiers with PTSD. For Proxima, you spent several years hanging out with astronauts at the European Space Agency. Could talk a bit about your process for researching and writing Revoir Paris?
Alice Winocour: I met a lot of victims of Bataclan and victims of other attacks. I met with psychiatrists specializing in PTSD and related problems. It was discovering this strong community held together by helping each other reconstruct the past. It was really fascinating and really moving. Many people were looking for each other on forums. Some of them had hidden together. They all wanted to meet.
I had a lot of conversations with my brother in the days and months that followed the attack. The film was built from the pieces of my own memories of that tragic night. I was sending an SMS to my brother while he was in the theatre during the attack. It was a traumatic night. I have little pieces of memories.
7R: Your characters’ specific jobs are important and well-researched in all your films. What made you decide to make Mia a translator?
Alice Winocour: I thought about Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises for Mia’s outfit and moto jacket. I liked the idea that she was Russian. She was not a privileged woman. She was fighting for a job. Life was not easy for her. She works for the radio, but she has to try to find other jobs.
Mia is a kind of Amazon. She doesn’t complain. My characters have troubles and are fighting, but they don’t complain. She’s not traumatized at the beginning of the film. She’s not tortured. She doesn’t know that she has a shitty life, that her husband is cheating on her. She is a real, normal person. I wanted to provoke empathy with her. Even if you are grounded and normal, you can become a ghost if you live through something like this.
7R: While watching Revoir Paris, I thought about your film Disorder, which also deals with PTSD. Revoir Paris feels like a much happier ending. She actually gets some closure.
Alice Winocour: I wanted it to be a path towards the light, about resiliency. She has all these encounters [with other victims to reconstruct her past]. She’s in limbo, and she comes more and more back to life.
I think it was a tough part for Virginie Efira. We met a lot of psychiatrists together to help her to embody PTSD. It’s like your body has survived, but your soul is elsewhere. She had to be there and not really there, to connect and disconnect.
I showed Virginie David Cronenberg’s film The Dead Zone with Christopher Walken who finds himself a spectator of his own memory. We worked a lot on the way she looked at things. Because of my personal involvement in the subject, we both had a lot of weight on our shoulders. The trial for the November 13, 2015 attack was happening in Paris when we shot the film. It was a big trial in Paris, so it was in the air.
When we shot at the restaurant, we had candles in front, like a vigil, and people would stop by and ask if there had been another attack. We had to have large signs saying it was just a set for a movie. Reality and fiction were really mixed. The film is about personal trauma, but above all, it was a national trauma.
7R: How did you approach showing us that Mia is both there and not there?
Alice Winocour: Like Disorder, it had to be a film about perception in her head and sensations. We worked a lot on the sound because the film was about having a traumatic memory with holes as if it were an exploded mirror. The attack is a kind of black hole sucking up the light. The memory is all in fragments and pieces. In the editing, we worked a lot with fragments of sounds. For example, there are details of sounds that she remembers, like the birthday candles crackling. We wanted them to be sudden and emphasized like a sound closeup.
Memory happens in what psychiatrists call involuntary reference memory, a sudden kind of psychic break. Suddenly, there’s a sound or an image, like a hand, and you’re transported back to the past as if you are really there. It’s not like a memory in a flashback as we’d normally see in movies. It’s like a revival of the scene. I thought the image and the sound should really create this revival so that you are suddenly in one second really back in the scene and having the feeling of the character. We worked a lot on the idea of shock.
Taking inspiration from Wings of Desire
For the images, we had a lot of shots from above. I thought a lot about Wim Wenders’s The Wings of Desire, where the angels look down on the city. Mia is an angel visiting other people’s memories and her own.
We thought it would be interesting to have another vision of Paris in the film where we would film it in a different way. There is this shot from above in which you see a roundabout where many different streets meet. To me, it was like wounds.
I also often shot Mia from above because she was not in her body anymore.
7R: In the restaurant, the sound feels very realistic just before the attack. As soon as she leaves the bathroom and follows this woman out, there’s a shift in the sound.
Alice Winocour: I thought a lot about horror movies. The beginning of the film had to be filmed like a memory. There is also this shot that zooms in on the apple bowl in her apartment. To me, it was like a memory of an earlier moment when she took the apples. Of course, it’s shot in Paris, but it already feels a bit strange because of the music and soundtrack of organ music by the Swedish composer Anna von Hausswolff. She recorded the soundtrack in churches to make it seem distant because of the echoes.
The idea was to disconnect you from the reality of Paris. It’s Paris seen through Mia’s eyes. It’s a bit dark. You could interpret the film as about someone already dead and she has to meet all these people from the shooting to get out of limbo. She’s a bit like Eurydice.
7R: How did you approach shooting the attack?
Alice Winocour: I thought about Kathryn Bigelow because I wanted to destroy everything, to be in a war zone. All the victims said it is really strange to be in a restaurant and suddenly be in a war zone. My film Disorder was also about PTSD, but it’s different for soldiers because they dress to go to war. It’s something you’re prepared for.
I like to shoot action scenes in a more abstract way. I don’t like for the camera to have multiple points of view; I want to remain in the victim’s point of view. We see the feet of the terrorist. In the sound recording, we hear screams but don’t see them.
My brother made me understand that it’s impossible to really represent an attack. I didn’t want it to be a reconstruction of a real historical event. That’s why we invented an attack. I needed that scene to express the violence and the shock of, in one second, being in another world.
7R: The attack we see is also a kind of false memory, and there are other false memories in the film.
Alice Winocour: I have experienced how memory constructs and reconstructs things. It’s alive, and it’s moving. You’re rewriting what is happening. It’s also like closeups and details. That’s why we emphasized this crackling birthday candle and the rain.
Before we shot, I thought about the sound and the way it would be recorded. We had a meeting with the sound engineer and the whole post-production team, six or seven people, to talk about each sound in the script and how to express the imaginary world that Mia lives in. We thought about how to create the soundscape of a PTSD victim. I also wanted there to be an evolution of the sound.
As the film goes on, there are more real-life sounds, because she is slowly returning to life.
In the fragile and clumsy love scene with Benoît Magimel, that is the moment where she gets back in her body. So the sound is different. We can hear the sound of the city more clearly.
7R: How did you approach the structure of the film Revoir Paris?
Alice Winocour: It’s very classical storytelling. I wanted to have the feeling of something really fragmented, physically: the pieces of the mirror that she has to reconstruct. There are pieces of other people’s memories. They perform something on her own memories. She starts to have images of a memory of someone else. There is a woman accusing Mia of locking herself up in the toilet [but it turns out it was actually this woman’s experience, not Mia’s].
It was very tough to edit the film because it may seem like simple storytelling. But the construction and the writing are super complex to create those moments when we visit the memory of another character [and sort of break Mia’s perspective], then get back to Mia [and her perspective].
To me, Mia was kind of an angel visiting the memory of others while inquiring into her own memories. But it’s also something really concrete: she’s looking for that man [she hid with] and for the hands [that she remembers]. [When we see other people’s memories of that night] it’s like [Mia’s] psychological journey into others’ memories.
7R: You mentioned that early scene in the film shot from above of the roundabout where we can see all the roads feeding into it like a wound. That image felt really symbolic to me of how the characters are all connected to each other by this traumatic event, even if they’re in completely different parts of the world. They’re all in this limbo.
Alice Winocour: Facing death, we are all equal. The moment of your death is the great encounter of your life. When you live through this with someone, it’s a bond that’s forever. You’re like brother and sister.
I thought about Charlie Chaplin’s City of Lights, where he says, “You see clearly now.” To me, that is one of the most beautiful endings in cinema. I thought about that moment when the vendor of the Eiffel Tower trinkets [whom she was with during the attack] sees her [on the street] and doesn’t recognize her.
Trauma crashes the barriers of class and wealth between people. Mia had to go through different layers of French society in her inquiry [to find out what happened to her]. She went to very different parts of Paris, like Port de La Chapelle, a very difficult place, the suburbs, and tourist sites. She meets Benoît Magimel, a trader who is also part of a completely different world. They all come from very different worlds. But because of this trauma, they share something in the same community. It’s the idea that you belong to something that is greater than us: humanity.
7R: Revoir Paris shares a lot of similarities with Disorder, as both films explore PTSD and trauma. Were there new things you wanted to explore about trauma in Revoir Paris that you didn’t get to in Disorder?
Alice Winocour: Disorder was based on my PTSD experience of giving birth to my daughter. I got a disease, and I almost died from giving birth. I wrote the film just after. It comes from something really personal that I haven’t said to anyone, even myself. I read something about soldiers suffering from PTSD. They were describing sensations that I could really recognize. When I was talking to them, I felt so close to them even though I’d never been to Afghanistan or a war zone. I met so many soldiers. I had such an intimate connection with the subject.
Some people can write about themselves and have an autobiographical way of telling their stories. But to me, the more it is intimate, the more it has to be far away. A story about soldiers was great because I could talk about my PTSD, but it was in another world. I felt protected. But it’s also maybe why Matthias Schoeanart’s character’s trauma is a bit abstract in the film. In the writing, I could have been more precise about what he has experienced in the war zone. I was concentrating on the feeling of floating, not being there, and the love story.
Toward a more concrete depiction of trauma
With Revoir Paris, it was more concrete. It was a personal trauma that I had lived and also a national trauma. But it was harder for me to direct and to write. I felt more exposed. It’s not at all the story of my brother. We took two years to write the script. It’s fiction. It’s a mix of different things I got from all the interviews and research I did.
But it was my city. It was something to do with my brother’s trauma, my own memory. I felt more exposed. I feel more comfortable in something that is more far away.
7R: Mia gets to connect with someone romantically in a way that the characters in Disorder don’t, but she also gets to have other important emotional connections, too.
Alice Winocour: In the film, I was trying to find the pieces of an exploded mirror and put them back together.
The girl who loses her parents in the attack finds a mother in Mia. It’s a tiny thing in the movie that Mia has no children. But we can imagine that connecting to this girl is another way of having children for her. Mia finds a daughter. She realizes that it’s a choice that she doesn’t want to have a child, but that there are other ways to have children. You can be a mother in a different way.
Mia resets her life unconsciously. After a trauma, you think more about life because you have understood the fragility of life. For the moments left, what is important to me? So, she changes. In the beginning, she doesn’t realize that her husband cheated and is not the right person for her. She realizes it’s the end of the relationship.
The woman who accuses Mia of saving herself and not helping others, we wanted her to look a bit like Mia: the style and colour of her hair. She was a bit like a doppelganger in a horror movie. There were many little things like that to show the struggle in Mia’s psyche. You have your own demons, which is this woman accusing her.
It’s also like Eyes Wide Shut: a film about a psychological journey through the city and her head.
7R: Where are you at with your next film?
Alice Winocour: I’m finishing writing a horror movie, which I’ve never done before. But I feel comfortable in the genre. I love dark romanticism, gothic horror, Dario Argento, and a metaphorical way of telling stories. I hope to shoot next winter, in January. It’s an English-language film, and it will be shot in Switzerland.
If you enjoyed this interview with Alice Winocour on Revoir Paris, you might also be interested in…
MORE ON PARIS TERRORIST ATTACKS: Mikhaël Hers also made an excellent film about the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks, Amanda (2018), about survivors who lost someone in the tragedy. It was our #3 film of 2020, featuring a career-best performance by Vincent Lacoste.
MORE ON PTSD: Keep exploring stories about PTSD with Alice Winocour’s Disorder, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, and Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace. We published books on You Were Never Really Here and Leave No Trace, which feature essays on the films and interviews with the filmmakers, including the director. I also recommend a deep dive into Ben Foster’s body of work, who has been embodying traumatized characters for most of his career — never better than in Leave No Trace and The Messenger (2009).
MORE ALICE WINOCOUR: Continue your exploration of Alice Winocour’s films with our resource page on her work, our Special Issue on Proxima, our review of Disorder, and our review of Revoir Paris. Prior to interviewing Alice Winocour on Revoir Paris, we also published interviews with her about Disorder, Proxima, and her career. Read my essay on the supporting male performances in Proxima from Matt Dillon and Lars Eidinger. Listen to our podcast on Proxima.