(Reviews of Paris Memories; and Kokomo City)
The events of 13 November 2015 left deep scars on France and the aftermath of the Bataclan attacks has already been explored in such films as Kilian Riedhof's You Will Not Have My Hate (2021), Cédric Jimenez's November, and Isaki Lacesta's One Year, One Night (both 2022). Alice Winocour's Paris Memories was filmed in 2021, while the attackers were on trial. She based her screenplay on the experiences of her younger brother, Jérémie, who had been trapped in a back room when gunmen killed 89 people and wounded at least 100 more at an Eagles of Death Metal gig.
Mia Loreau (Virginie Efira) works as a Russian translator in Paris. When doctor partner Vincent (Grégoire Colin) bales out on a dinner date, she motorcycles home alone. Caught in a downpour, she shelters in the back room of a bistro and does some people watching. As she's leaving, however, terrorists begin firing indiscriminately and Mia hides under a table. She sees the feet of the gunmen as they prowl around in the darkness and hears a shot close to her as a phone buzzes.
Over a nocturnal aerial shot of the Arc de Triomphe and Champs Elysées, we hear Mia state that she can't remember what happens next, as she visits a doctor to assess how an abdominal wound is healing after three months. On the bus home, she passes LÉtoile d'or and is informed by the bartender that survivors often return to the scene and have started a support group.
Yet to return to work, Mia is still in a daze and flashes back to a cake at the restaurant during Vincent's birthday party. She hides in a cupboard with the cat, but he insists on her rejoining the guests and is frustrated by her difficulty in coming to terms with the trauma. Lying in bed, she mulls over his recollection of the night, as the hospital was put on red alert and he tried to call Mia to check she had got home safely. When he picked her up from where she had been treated, the taxi had passed the bistro and we see the line of candles filling the pavement. But Mia still can't remember.
The support group is run by Sara (Maya Sansa), but Mia is disturbed when a woman shows her a phone photo of her parents with one of the gunmen outside the window. As she leaves, she runs into Thomas (Benoît Magimel), who is on crutches and is too claustrophobic to come inside. He was celebrating his birthday on the night of the attack and remembers being amused that Mia had got ink from her fountain pen over her fingers and had gone off to the washroom.
Feeling good about having part of the puzzle restored, Mia goes back inside. However, a woman accuses her of ducking into the bathroom when the shooting began and bolting the door so that no one else could take cover. Appalled by the revelation, Mia abandons Vincent at the opera and visits Thomas in hospital, where he is awaiting another operation on his legs. He tells her about the survivor website, but can't recall her returning to the back room after her episode with the pen. He asks whether she has a partner and jokingly tells her to bring food next time she comes.
Unable to be around Vincent, Mia moves into a friend's empty apartment and returns to the restaurant to see Sara. They walk around and she recalls being in a side room, while a man in an apron with a tattoo on his forearm held her hand in the dark. Sara explains that some of the kitchen staff weren't registered and that she can't help her with a name. But Mia is determined to discover the stranger's identity, as she is sure it will help her recollect.
Back at L'Étoile d'or, Mia discovers that
Nour (Sofia Lesaffre) is one of the few staff members to have been retained. Many were undocumented and melted away and she has been trying to find an Australian (Yoann Barrenechea) she kissed while hiding in an air vent. Nour promises to find the names of the illegal workers because Mia needs to confirm she wasn't the woman in the bathroom. At the last night of the vigil on the Place de la République, she approaches her accuser, who shuns her. However, she's followed home by Félicia (Nastya Golubeva Carax),whose friends were writing her a postcard when they were killed. She wants to visit the museum where they had been happy.
Félicia also tells Mia about the lost property store at the police station before crashing out on the bed. She's gone next morning, after Mia had watched the flowers being unceremoniously removed and tossed into a truck by hi-vis workers. At the police station, she finds her notebook with an ink-stained page and recalls being ushered into an ambulance in a gold heat blanket. However she can't remember the face of the man who held her hand. Thomas tells her it won't help and Mia is nettled when his wife, Estelle (Dolores Chaplin), returns the book she had bought him and complains that he fails to see that their marriage won't survive the ordeal.
Mia posts a message on an online memorial board in the hope her companion will see it. She gets a visit from Vincent, who is annoyed that she is distancing herself and wishes he had been in the attack, too, as he fears losing her. But Mia refuses to come home and learns from café owner Hakim (Cédric Kemso Ringuet) that she is looking for a Senegalese whose ID bore the name Driss Mbow. At a hostel, she finds his real name is Assane (Amadou Mbow) and that he has gone to Italy. A cutaway has him explaining how he had been in a storeroom when the shooting broke out and had tried to stop Mia from being afraid, as they hid in a cupboard. He had survived too much to get to Paris to die in the attack and he promised her they would survive.
Unnerved by faces on the Métro reminding her of people she had seen in the bistro, Mia takes Félicia to the Orangerie and she breaks down when she finds the postcard detail in one of Claude Monet's water lily paintings. Emboldened by her courage, Mia tells Vincent that she wants to break up and coaxes him into admitting that he had left early to see another woman.
Having hugged the woman who had accused her (when she had been the one who locked the bathroom door), Mia gatecrashes a wedding with Thomas. He admits that he would have tried to chat her up if the night had remained normal and she agrees with his suggestion that they should try to cheat fate. They sleep together, accepting each other's scars. Next morning, Mia hears that Assane is working near the Eiffel Tower. When he's chased by a police patrol, she keeps looking and they walk together as night falls. In voiceover, Mia recalls how pleased they were that the other was alive and she feels ready to move on after thanking him for holding her hand.
Following on from Augustine (2012), Disorder (2015), and Proxima (2019), this poignant and deeply personal drama confirms Alice Winocour among the finest film-makers currently working in France. The romance between Mia and Thomas feels overly conventional. But the way in which Winocour extracts fragments of memory from the maelstrom of emotions, misinformation, and suppressed truths psychologically paralysing Mia is masterly.
Virginie Efira similarly excels, as she uses her eyes and small shifts of expression to convey the confusion, pain, and disheartenment that Mia feels, as she realises that she can't go back to being the person she was before while seeking clarity over the events that have transformed her. The supporting cast is largely reduced to sparking feelings or dispatching Mia in new directions. But Paris plays a more significant role, as Winocour has Stéphane Fontaine's camera fix on landmarks and street scenes that suggest the capital has returned to a new sense of normality, even though Mia and her fellow survivors can not.
Julien Lachery's editing and Anna von Hausswolff's score (which is deftly abetted by a little Arvo Pärt) prove key to maintaining the tone and rhythm, while the sense of immediacy and authenticity comes from the sound design created by Jean-Pierre Duret, Pascal Villard, Laure-Anne Darras, and Marc Doisne, which is particularly effective during the massacre. But it's the screenplay written by Winocaur with help from Jean-Stéphane Bron and Marcia Romano that establishes the intricacy and intimacy of what is essentially a psycho-forensic investigation, as Mia strives to find meaning in a (fictional) atrocity that is brutally senseless.
Set to become a fixture in the LGBTQIA+ pantheon alongside Peter Adair and the Mariposa Group's Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives (1977) and Jennie Livingston's Paris Is Burning (1990), D. Smith's Kokomo City is a frank exploration of Black attitudes to transexuality that takes its title from the 1935 Kokomo Arnold song, `Sissy Man Blues'. Smith, two-time Grammy-nominated songwriter and producer for the likes of Lil Wayne, CeeLo Green, and Katy Perry before turning to film, has also revealed that this pioneering study was influenced by Todd Phillips's Joker (2019).
The tone is set by Liyah Mitchell's opening anecdote, as she recalls a misunderstanding with a client over a gun that resulted in them tumbling down the stairs in a struggle for control before he speeds away - and calls her later to rearrange the date for the next night. Filmed in lustrous monochrome from below, as Liyah sits on a bed with a teddy bear behind her, the episode is punctuated with re-enactments and cutaways to a spinning gun in order to emphasise the shifts between matter of factuality, suspense, farce, and lust. It's brilliantly done and announces D. Smith as a natural born film-maker.
After Randy Crawford's `Street Life' plays over the slick credits, we meet Daniella Carter from Queens, as she explains her facial exfoliation philosophy while giving a shout-out to the little wand she keeps in her purse. Fellow New Yorker Dominique Silver reveals that she started doing sex work at 19 because waitressing didn't pay for the surgical procedures she wanted. By contrast, Atlanta-based Koko Da Doll started out because she and her mother and sister were left homeless after an older sibling threw them out after she transitioned. In order to pay hotel bills, Koko turned tricks and began to earn good money as she mastered her craft.
Residing in Decatur, Georgia, Liyah concedes she's often surprised by the kind of men who seek her out. She plays with her hair, as she recalls the macho Black men who try to chat her up on the street, let alone pay for her services. In New York, Inw Tarxan and Lexx Pharaoh sit in their car and urge brothers to be true to themselves and accept their desires without having to lead a double life. As they talk, Smith cuts away to a male ballet dancer with a toned body to echo the message that Black masculinity comes in many forms.
Daniela jokes that she gets more stick from African American women than man, as they are so conservative in their sexual attitudes that they don't even want trans women living in their neighbourhoods. Smoochy Miami couple Xotommy and Rich-Paris describe how they got together and tease each other endearingly. But Dominique insists that a lot of Black men are insecure and often resort to violence after orgasm in order to reassert themselves. She laments that the stereotype persists that you have to be gay if you sleep with a trans woman because they have male genitals. However, she insists `a lot of us are way more woman than a lot of cis women'.
Strolling by the river, Daniella follows up by averring that a lot of men pay for sex with trans women because they wouldn't ask their own partners for the acts they fantasise about. She has no inferiority complex and refuses to be labelled a survivor. Liyah's less concerned why men seek her out than with the fact they often seem to relax and come out of themselves in her company. She also declares that African American women
At the Bone Garden Cantina in Atlanta, we meet hip-hop songwriter Michael Carlos Jones (aka LØ), who boasts about being the type who goes for the girls no other man can get. He flirted with a trans woman online, but didn't go through with a meeting. He later remarks that he would let an attractive trans give him oral if he was in the right mood, but he isn't going beneath their waist.
Koko reveals herself to be a top in claiming that men want big everything in a trans woman and how she had to get work done in order to start making decent money. However, Dominique feels it's easier being a woman than a trans and confides that her aim is to have surgery. Daniella meets a white friend in a bar and discusses how guilty she sometimes feels helping a Black man cheat on his wife. But Koko is more able to detach herself from the transaction and gives graphic advice on how Black women can keep their men by taking control and treating them the dominant manner she does.
Xotommy smokes a joint in his car while considering his relationships with his parents, while Dominique reclines on her bed in a white dress and opines that people should focus on their own sex lives without prying into what others are doing. She reckons that the majority of the men she sees are bottoms with her and then head home to be master of the household with their partners. Daniella tells Black women that she's every bit as much deserving of respect as they are and reminds them that their menfolk see her as a woman even if they don't.
Posing before a mirror, Liyah accepts that some trans women are going to look more feminine than others. But she says that's fine because there are all sorts of trans women and that nobody should be defined by someone else's conception of what they should be.
As Inw Tarxan and Lexx Pharaoh discuss how tough gay Black men have to be (intercut with shots of a boxer), LØ props up bar and admits that he would probably have met his online friend by now if she had different genitals. Koko declares she finds it hard to view men as anything other than something to be exploited, as she's had such bad experiences with men in everyday life. But Dominique is against blackmailing or outing clients as they are already struggling with their identity and no one benefits from men being driven away.
Lying in a bathtub, Daniella reflects on the fact that most men she meets are in denial. She is angry that cis and trans women are manipulated by men who use their bodies as an escape from their inadequacies. It infuriates her that lessons aren't learnt and that trans sex workers put their lives on the line to pleasure men who don't care a fig about them and or their issues.
Koko agrees that they're in a dangerous business and recalls losing one friend to AIDS and two more to shootings, for which no one paid a penalty. But, having left school barely able to read or write, she felt her options were limited. Daniella wishes cis women were more open because they are on different sides of the same coin when it comes to men. However, they are poles apart when it comes to societal acceptance and respect.
While fishing, LØ explores his feelings for his online friend, Inw and Lexx debate how attitudes are shaped by parents and authority figures during someone's youth and these become entrenched. Daniella blames it on the slave mentality, with Black people still viewing themselves in `field' and `house' terms that were imposed upon them by whites. Given the onerousness of the struggle for racial acceptance, it baffles her that Black folks are the first to decry anyone who dares to be different. But she refuses to play that game.
Koko is a big fan of the Hush nights that Lenox Love runs in his Atlanta strip club. as it's discreet and safe and takes away the degrading need to streetwalk. Liyah has her sights set on the future, however, as she knows the odds are against her if she keeps doing sex work. Fearing a fourth jail term that will put a felony on her record, Koko hopes her music can give her an out, while also enabling her to speak up for those who feel silenced. She gets tearful, as she despairs of a society that has so little empathy.
In an impassioned speech, Daniella regrets letting her mother down by not being the Black boy she had hoped for after having been disappointed by her Black lover. She reasons that many mothers would rather their children conformed and kept their heads down than be themselves, as they have become so browbeaten by the masculine imperative in their community. But Daniella can't suppress herself in this way and curses the notion that a Black woman can't be a success without having a man behind her.
Following close-ups capturing the beauty and vivacity of the four women, the film ends with Koko defiantly insisting that she'd keep doing sex work even if she became an A list celebrity because she refuses `to fuck for free'. Sadly, Rasheeda Williams (aka Koko Da Doll) was gunned down in April and a 17 year-old surrendered himself to the Atlanta police. Her death makes the points made by D. Smith and her interviewees all the more poignant and immediate.
Shunned by music industry colleagues after she transitioned, Smith decided to make this documentary while sleeping on a friend's couch. She had to ask them to buy her a camera and embarked upon the project with no previous film-making experience. Her compositional sense will be envied by veterans, with the camera positioning and the lighting of the high-contrast images lending intimacy and symbolic finesse to the testimony of the articulate and photogenic collaborators who are fully aware of the opportunity this picture affords them to speak their personal truth while also addressing wider issues within the Black community and a still largely homophobic country.
The speakers pull few punches, with Koko and Daniella being the most fearlessly frank and defiantly trenchant. But Dominique and Liyah bring a wit that makes the enterprise feel as human as it is political. Impeccably edited by Smith with a rhythmic intuitiveness that is complemented by Stacy Barthe's inspired song selections and Roni Pillischer's mischievous sound effects, this is essential viewing. Indeed, it would make a splendid companion piece to Sam Feder's Netflix offering, Disclosure (2020), which explores how trans people are depicted on screen.