Jacques Audiard explores love and sex in Paris, 13th District

Noémie Merlant and Makita Samba in Jacques Audiard's Paris, 13th District

Noémie Merlant and Makita Samba in Jacques Audiard’s Paris, 13th District
Photo: IFC Films

Anyone living in the 13th arrondissement of Paris might wonder what French director Jacques Audiard had in mind when he set his latest film, Paris, 13th District (original English title: The Olympiads) in such a drab section of the city relatively removed from its iconic museums, monuments, and prodigious rows of Haussmann-style apartment buildings. The arrondissement is known mainly as the location of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, with its vast and bleak plaza, and a collection of enormous murals that add color and life to an area that sorely lacks both.

The 13th is also the location of Les Olympiades, a grouping of residential towers that are sort of the Parisian equivalent of Manhattan’s Stuyvesant Town. Built in the early ’70s to attract young professionals, it now stands as a sprawling monstrosity that, it turns out, is the perfect location for Audiard’s dreamy, absorbing and minutely observed dissection of youthful, modern-day intimacy. Mostly seen through the eyes (and, very often, the loins) of three bed-hopping Parisians, Paris, 13th District contains copious amounts of uninhibited sex with partners often procured via cell phone or laptop. But the sex exists at a selfish remove, a consequence of the screen-driven interpersonal disconnect baked into our times that Audiard’s primary trio of twenty- and thirtysomethings don’t even realize they suffer from.

It might seem like the height of boomer folly for the 69-year-old Audiard to think he can harangue an audience half his age into rejecting their online predilections and go offline to find a real connection. Yet writing off the movie as a tiresome yada yada about vapid millennials swiping-right in a quixotic search for deep emotional attachment is reductive. Especially because Audiard cares less about the reasons and more about the results he documents with such carefully measured nonchalance that it’s easy to ignore the fleeting moments when the film’s schematic design pops into view. The signifiers of the millennial experience—cell phones, web chats, internet pornography, dating apps—are all there but are merely tools employed, with stealth and style, to suggest that the digital thrum of urban life makes it difficult for two lonely souls to get on the same wavelength.

That’s certainly the case with Emilie and Camille. An educated and brash French-Taiwanese woman wasting time as a call center operator, Émilie (sparkling newcomer Lucie Zhang) has been searching for a roommate when she meets Camille (Makita Samba, terrific), a handsome Black man about to quit his teaching gig to get his doctorate. During what he calls their roommate 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. Later he cuts it off by declaring he’s not looking for a girlfriend, then upsets her further by bringing home another woman.

For Audiard, Paris, 13th District marks a notable step outside his genre wheelhouse of masculine crime dramas like A Prophet. The only violence here is a single (and awesome) haymaker to the face. But his tough-minded contemporary sensibilities are well-suited to a story featuring more than his share of casual cruelty while his characters, with their broken hearts and searching souls, coax out his sensitive side. The script is co-written by Audiard, Léa Mysius, and, most notably, Celine Sciammathe brilliant writer/director of Portrait Of A Lady On Fire and Girlhood. Sciamma’s female characters are often delicately woven, but they’re strong, determined, and relatable, especially in crisis.

Take Nora (the exceptional Noémie Merlant from Portrait Of A Lady On Fire), a socially and sexually skittish thirtysomething law student freshly settled in Paris after fleeing an abusive relationship in Bordeaux. When she dons a blonde wig to attend a rave, she’s mistaken for sex cam star Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth, from the English rock band Savages). Subsequently sex-shamed during class 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 major character who functions primarily as Nora’s sexually liberated mirror image.

The Nora and Amber story hews most closely to Audiard’s inspiration, three stories pulled from the Optic Nerve series of graphic novels by American cartoonist Adrian Tomine. While Tomine can naturally get into Nora’s head better than any filmmaker, Audiard shows great respect and warmth towards Nora and Amber, whose relationship nevertheless unfolds in rather straightforward fashion. Later, the romantic plump comes full circle in a bit of a stretch as Nora takes a job at a real estate agency that happens to be managed by Camille. After Nora initially establishes some workplace boundaries, it’s not long before their clothes are coming off.

Despite these brief moments where the seams show, the unforced chemistry of the excellent multiculti cast suggests, in that uniquely French way, flawed people acting of their own freewill. Audiard takes a humane, non-judgmental approach towards his characters, refusing to torture them to make a grand statement about love in the time of cellphones. Nevertheless, Paris, 13th District is a minor addition to Audiard’s remarkable canon. It fits comfortably with talky relationship deconstructions like Eric Rohmer’s My Night At Maud’sWoody Allen’s manhattan, and, more recently, France’s own Love Affair(s) and the Norwegian Oscar nominee, The Worst Person In The World.

Unfolding at a relaxed pace and richly enhanced by DP Paul Guilhaume’s silky black and white images, Paris, 13th District is a candid, intimate, and authentic examination of the obstacles that keep young urbanites from connecting. On the other side of those (usually self-imposed) impediments is the self-knowledge that leads to a desire for personal reinvention. Audiard’s concluding point is that the spark of reinvention will not be ignited 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.

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