Jacques Audiard explores love and sex in Paris’ 13th arrondissement

Noémie Merlant and Makita Samba at Jacques Audiard's Paris, 13th arrondissement

Noémie Merlant and Makita Samba in Jacques Audiards Paris, 13th district
photo: IFC films

Anyone living in the 13th arrondissement of Paris might be wondering which French director that is Jacques Audiard had in mind when making his latest film, Paris, 13th district (Original French title: Les Olympiads) in such a gritty part of the city that is relatively far from its famous museums, monuments and amazing rows of Haussmann-style apartment buildings. The arrondissement is best known as the site of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, with its vast and bare square and collection of huge murals, bringing color and life to an area sorely lacking in either.

The 13th is also the site of Les Olympiades, a cluster of apartment towers that are something of the Parisian equivalent of Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Town. Built in the early ’70s to attract young professionals, it stands today as a sprawling monstrosity that turns out to be the perfect setting for Audiard’s dreamy, compelling, and meticulously observed analysis of youthful, modern intimacy. Seen mostly through the eyes (and very often the loins) of three bedridden Parisians, Paris, 13th district contains plenty of uninhibited sex with partners, often obtained via cell phone or laptop. But the sex exists at a selfish distance, a consequence of the screen-driven interpersonal disconnect etched into our times that Audiard’s primary twenties-and-thirties trio don’t even realize they’re suffering from.

It might seem like the height of boomer craze for 69-year-old Audiard to think he could get an audience half his age to reject their online preferences and go offline for a real connection to find. However, to write the film off as an annoying jada-yada about squishy millennials swiping right in an adventurous quest for deep emotional connection is reductive. Mainly because Audiard cares less about the reasons and more about the results, which he documents with such carefully measured nonchalance that it’s easy to ignore the fleeting moments when the film’s schematic design comes into focus. The signifiers of a millennium of experience — cell phones, web chat, internet pornography, dating apps — are all there, but only tools deployed with stealth and style to suggest that the digital din of city life is two lonely souls makes it difficult to get on the same wavelength.

This is definitely the case with Émilie and Camille. Émilie (glitzy newcomer Lucie Zhang), an educated and brash French woman from Taiwan who is wasting her time working as a call center operator, is looking for a roommate when she meets Camille (Makita Samba, terrific), a handsome black man who briefly is about to give up his job as a teacher to do his doctorate. During what he calls her roommates Q&A, he describes his love life by admitting, “I channel professional frustration into intense sexual activity.” She sums up hers with “fuck first, see later.” The two eventually share the apartment, then a bed. He later interrupts by stating that he’s not looking for a girlfriend, and then upsets her even more by bringing another woman home.

For Audiard, Paris, 13th district marks a notable step outside of its genre wheelhouse of masculine crime dramas like A prophet. The only violence here is a single (and awesome) haymaker in the face. But its stubborn contemporary sensibility fits well with a story that packs more than its share of casual cruelty, while its characters, with their broken hearts and searching souls, lure out its sensitive side. The script was written by Audiard, Léa Mysius and especially Celine Sciammathe brilliant writer/director of Portrait of a lady on fire and girl time. Sciamma’s female characters are often delicately woven, but they are strong, determined, and relatable, especially in times of crisis.

Except for Nora (the extraordinary Noémie Merlant Portrait of a lady on fire), a socially and sexually edgy thirtysomethingsomething a law student freshly installed in Paris after fleeing an abusive relationship in Bordeaux. When she puts on a blonde wig at a rave, she is mistaken for sexcam star Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth of English rock band Savages). Subsequently, during class, she is sex-shamed by her cackling classmates (the look on Merlant’s face as she tries to keep it together is heartbreaking), she drops out of school. A month later, a curious Nora books an online session with Amber, the least developed main character who primarily acts as Nora’s sexually liberated mirror image.

The story of Nora and Amber is closest to Audiard’s inspiration, three stories from the optic nerve Series of graphic novels by American cartoonist Adrian Tomine. While Tomine is obviously better at getting into Nora’s mind than any other filmmaker, Audiard shows great respect and warmth for Nora and Amber, whose relationship nonetheless develops fairly easily. Later, the romantic rondelet comes full circle when Nora takes a job at a real estate agency that happens to be run by Camille. After Nora initially establishes some workplace boundaries, it doesn’t take long for them to strip down.

Despite those brief moments where the seams show, the excellent multicultural cast’s easy chemistry suggests, in that uniquely French way, flawed human beings acting of their own free will. Audiard treats his characters in a human, non-judgmental way, refusing to torture them to make a great statement about love in the age of cellphones. Nevertheless, Paris, 13th district is a small addition to Audiard’s remarkable canon. It goes well with talkative relationship deconstructions like Éric Rohmer’s My night at Maud’sWoody Allens Manhattan, and more recently France’s own love affairs) and the Norwegian Oscar nominee The worst person in the world.

Unfolds at a relaxed pace and is richly enhanced by DP Paul Guilhaume’s silky black and white imagery. Paris, 13th district is open, intimate, and authentic engagement with the barriers that keep young city dwellers from socializing. On the other side of these (usually self-imposed) obstacles is self-awareness, which leads to a desire for personal reinvention. Audiard’s final point is that the spark of reinvention won’t ignite on a Samsung Galaxy S22 or a MacBook Pro. There’s a reason the film’s final shot is a 50-year-old corded phone.

https://www.avclub.com/paris-13th-district-review-jacques-audiard-celine-sciam-1848680369 Jacques Audiard explores love and sex in Paris’ 13th arrondissement

Andrew Schnitker

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