Paris, 13th District (Les Olympiades, Paris 13e)

France (2021) Dir. Jacques Audiard

Sex messes up everything and I’m not just talking about the bed sheets either. The 1989 comedy When Harry Met Sally… ponders whether men and women can be friends without sex occurring and subsequently proves otherwise. But that was in the 80s, how about in today’s world?

In Les Olympiades, Paris, young Chinese-French woman Emilie (Lucie Zhang) lives in her grandmother’s apartment, now in hospital with Alzheimer’s. Due to the expense, Emilie advertises for a flatmate, attracting male teacher Camille (Makita Samba), and they seal the deal by having sex, agreeing on a no strings attached arrangement. When Camille ejects Emilie one night, she becomes hostile towards him and jealous when he dates colleague Stéphanie (Oceane Cairaty), forcing him to leave.

Meanwhile, 33 year-old Nora (Noémie Merlant) moves to Paris to resume her law studies but is hounded out of college after she is mistaken for cam girl Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth). Nora finds work at a small estate agent, now run by Camille and she falls for him but sex between them never seems to work. Nora seeks Amber out online to meet her supposed doppelganger, while Camille realises he misses Emilie who is reluctant to reconnect.

Having tried his luck in Hollywood and failing, Jacques Audiard returns to his homeland to bring to life the comic books of American cartoonist Adrian Tomine. But Audiard hasn’t come alone – in writing the screenplay he collaborates with Céline Sciamma and Léa Mysius, who no doubt provided a modern female perspective Audiard may not be able to convey.

Filmed in monochrome, save for one brief colour scene involving an Amber Sweet private chat session, Paris, 13th District leans a little closer to the human interest fare of Rust & Bone than the violence of A Prophet. As I have no knowledge of Tomine’s comics to say how faithful the adaptation is, I do have to admire how the script is able to make three separate stories effortlessly coalesce, if they are originally independent of each other.

Whilst there is a lot of sex in this film, it is about the attitudes of those who desire it and how it pertains to love and relationships. There is nothing apologetic about the bed hopping of the principal cast, treating it as natural as breathing, which will be viewed as either very modern or typically French. In that regard, the amount of pseudo-intellectual discussions in this film is VERY French and does little to make the characters, Camille in particular, wholly likeable.

Camille being a teacher means he approaches everything in a philosophical manner and not always successfully. He has a younger sister Eponine (Camille Léon-Fucien), who has a bad stammer, yet wants to do stand up comedy. But Camille claims to hate comedians for their snobbish cynical views, upsetting his sister and his father, both wondering who this pretentious oaf thinks he is.

Emilie isn’t so bothered about Camille’s intellectual pomposity since he is a hero between the sheets, albeit one who took the no-strings agreement too seriously. I suppose since the film doesn’t judge this promiscuity we shouldn’t either, but coupled with the sudden petulance and protean caprice, Emilie also isn’t an easy person to warm to, although all she has actually done at this point is fallen in love.

The saga of Nora is perhaps the most outrageous and the one that raises the most questions – to wit: the fuss caused about Nora being Amber Sweet. The aforementioned private session Amber performs is recorded and shared among friends and later the whole class, since this was how the dots were inaccurately connected when Nora walks into the party in a short blonde wig and not her usual frizzier dark hair.

Yet Nora isn’t that much of an Amber clone – she isn’t covered in tattoos for a start – but the things is, if the real Amber Sweet was in their midst, the guys wouldn’t be upset, they’d be in heaven! The women may be a different case – some would be on her side, others not so much, but in today’s world, especially in Paris, would it really be that much of a scandal? Or is it due to Nora being in her 30s?

Nora finds solace with Amber in an unlikely development that feels rushed and unlikely, probably would have occurred naturally were this a single plot film. The connection they have is arguably the most wholesome of all the hook ups, based purely on conversations and mutual escapism and not an iota of physical contact along the way, since they have other people for that – Nora has Camille, except he is trying to win Emilie back.

Being a monochrome presentation gives it an arty veneer that I am sure will turn some off as typically pretentious, but it works in diluting the luridness of the sex scenes, a mix of cinematic choreography and raw feral rutting. It also adds a cold sterility to the Paris vistas around which this is set, as it to negate the city of love epithet it wears so proudly as a global trademark. Paul Guilhaume’s cinematography is at once intimate and epic, immersive yet ambivalent.

Lucie Zhang as Emilie makes her debut here and is quite an impressive find, diving right in with this bold role more attuned to her French side than her Chinese side, as in her very first scene 60 seconds into the film she is naked. Makita Samba holds his end up as the thoughtful but self-absorbed male stud Camille, but is outclassed by Noémie Merlant as Nora, continuing to prove herself a force in modern French cinema, whilst pop singer Jehnny Beth brings out the lost girl in Amber.

Paris, 13th District may not be Audiard at his best after the speed bump of his Hollywood sojourn, but the game cast, stunning photography, and interesting discussions within the three stories make this a watchable enough entry in his award winning oeuvre.  

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