Life & Culture

Parisian film director's new film is a love letter to her wounded city

Alice Winocour tells of her inherited Jewish trauma and her new film on the 2015 Paris terror attacks


Alice Winocour says she has an innate understanding of trauma. “My grandfather survived Auschwitz,” she explains when we meet in Paris during the Unifrance get-together of French filmmaking talent.

There is no doubt that trauma and post-trauma has been baked into a career that began with a bang over a decade ago with the well-liked period drama Augustine, which explored the story of French neurologist Dr Jean-Martin Charcot as he examines the source of a kitchen maid’s violent fits.

“The women who were hysterical in the 19th century had been raped,” she explains. “And their bodies were expressing [their pain], like a rebellion, as it was impossible for them to revolt with words.”

Winocour followed the drama with the 2015 film Disorder, which starred Matthias Schoenaerts as an ex-soldier suffering from PTSD. Four years later, she directed Eva Green in the astronaut tale Proxima.

And now she’s back with Paris Memories, which explores the trauma suffered by the mind and body during and after a terrorist attack.

Her inspiration was her younger brother, Jeremie, who was present at the Bataclan theatre on November 13, 2015, when three armed gunmen opened fire on concert-goers, killing 90 of them. It was one of a series of co-ordinated terror attacks across the French capital.

The shellshock of the night, the exchange of frantic texts with her brother, scarred her. “After Proxima, I came back to Paris, and I thought, I really have to make a film about my wounded city.

“Until then, I had never shot any films in Paris, which is strange because it’s really my city.”

The result, she says, “is a love letter to Paris” and a film that addresses the aftermath of terror and which mostly passes over the bloodshed of the moment.

There’s also no mention of the Bataclan. Instead, the story sees Mia, a radio translator played by Virginie Efira, caught up in an attack in a bistro.

Three months later she is still trying to piece together her memories of the night, when she returns to the venue and meets other survivors. Some have crystal-clear recall; others, like her, suffer from amnesia.

“The character is not in real life anymore,” says Winocour. “She’s in her city, but she doesn’t recognise it as such, she’s in limbo.

"Sometimes you think you survived the situation, you think your body’s safe, and your mind is safe, but you’re not there anymore, and you have to learn to live with a new body and a new soul. This is Mia’s situation as she tries to re-construct her identity. She’s like a naked soul in the city.”

Winocour met with psychiatrists and survivors as part of her research, but it is her brother who is pivotal to the film.

He shared intimate details that ended up in the screenplay, he read the script and was even an extra on set.

Some of those details are startling. At one point, as she is hiding from the terrorists, Mia remembers that she has a half-eaten yoghurt in the fridge.

“My brother told me he was thinking about the things he had left, and what people would find of him after his death. And he thought about the yoghurt in his fridge.”

It is, of course, the perfect expression of how the mind can fracture during a traumatic event. In the film, Winocour also shows two strangers kissing, a scene she based on a story she had heard.

“They thought it would be the last kiss before their death, the worst and best of moments. Many details in the film like this were inspired by reality.”

As part of his healing process, her brother also revisited the Bataclan several times. “It can be important thing for victims to go back to the place of their trauma,” explains Winocour.

During her research, she also discovered people often seek out fellow survivors on forums.

“People need information. Do you know if this person is OK? I had just met him, we spent one minute together. ”

The filmmaker, 47, makes no apologies for tackling a subject that some will obviously find distressing.

“Many people have asked me if it’s too early or too late to have made this film. But the thing is that, while the film is inspired by the Bataclan, it’s more about what remains after a traumatic event. It’s a film about resilience.”

And so far the reactions to Paris Memories have been positive, not only from those who were there that terrifying night, but also from the survivors of sexual violence and refugee displacement.

As we talk, she returns to her own family’s Shoah trauma. Her paternal grandfather who survived Auschwitz met her grandmother in Paris just after the war, while she was (ultimately unsuccessfully) trying to trace her own parents.

“My grandmother was one of the first victims to return to Auschwitz. When they met, my grandparents fell in love and married one week after.” Sometimes beauty can rise from ashes of tragedy, she says.

“It’s called diamond in the trauma. Behind some horrific events, there are love stories and friendships that could never have happened without the trauma. It sounds strange, but it has happened many times.”

Did Winocour’s grandfather, who died when she was 19, and who she describes as a happy person — “maybe the most joyful I’ve ever met” — talk about the Shoah with her?

“He told me some things, but not many. His position was essentially don’t talk about those events. You don’t have to say you’re a Jew. Maybe something else will happen: he was afraid of the return of antisemitism. In fact, it was forbidden to talk about the Shoah with strangers. He lost his parents and many, many members of our family.

“He said, ‘I don’t want to deal with the dead now.’”

In fact, he didn’t want to be involved with survivors’ associations or the Holocaust memorial that Winocour’s maternal great-grandmother wanted to build.

Her next film is another return to trauma, to the darker recesses of the mind: a Gothic horror.

“It’s in my blood, it has been part of my life,” she offers.

“I think when you choose a film, it’s an unconscious process… so I think the subjects I choose are probably in some way related to my family story. I mean, many French directors have an autobiographical way of dealing with stories and talking about themselves.”

‘Paris Memories’ opens in cinemas on August 4

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