THE STORY – Émilie meets Camille who is attracted to Nora, who crosses paths with Amber. Three girls and a boy – They’re friends, sometimes lovers and often both.
THE CAST – Lucie Zhang, Makita Samba, Jehnny Beth & Noémie Merlant
THE TEAM – Jacques Audiard (Director/Writer), Céline Sciamma & Léa Mysius (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 106 Minutes
By Hunter Friesen
Audiard has taken a particular interest in the lives of resilient people set within his native country. The films “Dheepan” and “A Prophet” don’t showcase France at its best. Instead, they shine a light on the many problems Audiard sees. After taking a detour into the English language with the unfairly ignored “The Sisters Brothers,” Audiard (along with co-writer Céline Sciamma of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” fame) once again sets his sights on modern French society, this time through the gaze of not one, but four main characters.
Our protagonists (or antagonists depending on your viewpoint) all reside within the titular district of Paris, a highly populated sector known for its mixture of modern and traditional architecture. Émilie is a phone operator at a cell phone service call center who is professionally and romantically stuck in a rut. She’s a disappointment to her Taiwanese immigrant parents, who often call to tell her about her sister’s experience as a doctor in England. Luckily, her romantic prospects improve with the arrival of Camille, a lonely school teacher inquiring about the vacant room in her apartment. Carnal feelings impulsively take over their relationship, something Émilie prefers as she lives by the motto “fuck first, talk later.” At the same time, Nora is a real estate agent trying to reinvent herself by going back to school, despite being a dozen years older than her fellow students. Further compounding her misfit status is her striking resemblance to famous webcam model Amber Sweet. She soon receives the unwanted attention of lustful boys, forcing her to retreat from academic prospects. Nora decides to meet her doppelganger with morbid curiosity and see if they share anything besides just looks.
Like Paul Thomas Anderson in “Magnolia” or Robert Altman in “Short Cuts,” Audiard acts as a puppet master, crossing and pulling the strings of his characters in “Paris, 13th District” (translated to “Les Olympiades” in French). The interactions are more frequent since there are only four main characters compared to dozens within Anderson and Altman’s films. Audiard is interested in exploring the idea of opposites attracting, which brings out both the best and worst in each other. These characters carry a lot of baggage with them, which often gets saddled onto their partner in an acrimonious fashion. Audiard and Sciamma take an authentic approach to these moments, with characters getting in heated arguments that sometimes lead to break-ups and sometimes lead to sex. The film is quite sexually explicit, with each actor bearing it all for the black-and-white screen. Except for the exceptional Noémie Merlant, the cast consists of relative unknowns, a fact that never crossed my mind as they have the chops of veterans.
Speaking of black-and-white, the grainy cinematography by Paul Guillaume strips down the film to its rawest form. Like Sam Levinson’s “Malcolm & Marie,” the lack of color works to center our focus on the actors and their condensed surroundings. While the beautiful cinematography could be guessed from still images, the most surprising is the excellent electronic score by French musical artist Rone. Mixing pop beats with fluttery strings, the score embodies the clash between modernity and tradition present within the characters and the city itself.
Not without its problems, “Paris 13th District” often gets too attached to the trio of Émilie, Camille, and Nora, leaving Amber to a lower supporting status, despite having the only sequence of the film shot in color. Frustratingly, Jehnny Beth’s great work as the most interesting character isn’t given the attention it most surely deserves. As filled with millennial insight as it is filled with nudity, “Paris 13th District” is a lighter affair from the dependable Jacques Audiard. Barring a few minor setbacks within the script, Audiard’s latest is an insightfully sexy, arthouse delight that will connect with younger viewers, possibly more than they are expecting.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – The script explores modern relationships in a raw fashion, with the cast more than game to take on the director’s demands.
THE BAD – An uneven allocation of screen time between the main quartet stunts our connection with certain characters.
THE OSCARS – None