Director: Jacques Audiard
Stars: Lucie Zhang, Noémie Merlant, Makita Samba
I’ve long been awaiting a Jacques Audiard film to call ‘mine’, having been left cold or otherwise unmoved by such celebrated efforts as Rust and Bone, Dheepan and The Sisters Brothers. I tried in earnest with all three but didn’t manage to connect with any. Thus, you might well appreciate my trepidation over Paris, 13th District. Shouldn’t I have cut my losses by now?
Sometimes it’s worth persevering. Paris, 13th District (or Les Olympiades in Audiard’s native tongue) continues a trend of shifting wildly in both concern and style, yet it lands on something breezily engaging if not entirely radical; the contradictory feelings of connectivity and alienation felt by millennials.
Émilie (Lucie Zhang) is a witty, prickly call centre worker living in her grandmother’s vacated apartment in said district. She solicits a roommate and Camille (Makita Samba) responds. The two of them quickly hook up and Camille takes the room, but when Émilie hits the breaks on their with-benefits arrangement, the relationship between the two of them becomes fraught.
Elsewhere, Nora (Noémie Merlant) is a wide-eyed 32-year-old fresh off the bus from Bordeaux, still glassy-eyed at living in the City of Lights. Their paths will cross, but not until Nora suffers bullying at the hands of younger students when it transpires that she’s a dead ringer for notorious camgirl Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth). Though she begins a sexual relationship with Camille, Nora is self-conscious about her ‘vanilla’ behaviour in the bedroom, while privately she explores a new and modern form of connection elsewhere.
Shot (almost entirely) in gorgeous black and white by Paul Guilhaume, this almost-portmanteau story of interconnected lives in a bustling urban landscape recalls other such efforts from America (Frances Ha, C’mon C’mon) and seems similarly keen to tap into a milieu of modern living. While the monochrome mirrors those efforts to capture contemporary architecture in flattering relief, Paris, 13th District is more keenly interested in the part technology plays in connecting and dividing people.
The role of dating apps and camming portals in modern sexuality is gingerly explored, in the process suggestive of a generation that’s been aggressively influenced by exposure to the oversexed internet. Nora – a country girl seemingly from the dark ages – is a clean slate reacting with shock and awe at these new ways of (literally) coming together.
But it’s not just a thesis on the new possibilities of technology. Audiard and Guihaume utilise these glowing devices in tandem with the black and white photography, often lighting an entire scene from their unnatural glows, evoking a strange new intimacy and reverence. This sense of seeing the ordinary anew appears elsewhere. Nora goes clubbing, and the monochrome (combined with the dreamy, propulsive electronic music from Rone) combine in beautiful and interesting ways. When we think of nightclub scenes in movies we think of neon in interplay with darkness. Bleaching out the colour reconfigures these communal spaces into something more tribal and euphoric.
Paris, 13th District is bolstered by the performances of it’s central cast, particularly Zhang, who will hopefully utilise this as a springboard into other prominent roles. Samba is similarly charismatic on screen and the two together emit a genuine sense of chemistry. Merlant, for her part, has to navigate a character that is sometimes clumsily written, though her eventual grace note is among the film’s most giving moments.
There is a sense that Audiard is a little late to the party here. We’ve seen a number of these kinds of films over the past decade or more. Still, Paris, 13th District utilises it’s specificity well, and Audiard peppers his piece of miniature moments of transcendence that buys him plenty of goodwill. As such, it’s easy to overlook some of the film’s flaws (it’s comedic tendencies don’t always land) in favour of reminiscing on the things that worked so well.