The 70-year-old filmmaker returns to French cinema with an alluring yet cryptic film about modern Parisian love
Emilie, a Chinese-French girl, begins a steamy but non-exclusive sexual affair with her new flatmate Camille. Nora, a new girl in Paris, is mistaken for a cam-girl named Amber Sweet and is forced to quit her law course and take up a real estate job with Camille. When Camille and Nora find themselves attracted to one another, Emilie's life is disarrayed but Nora's own inward quests lead her to forge a unique bond with Amber, thus leaving Camille in the muddled between.
In many ways, Paris, 13th District is Jacques Audiard’s holiday movie. Known for brooding dramas like The Prophet, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, and Palme d’Or winning Dheepan, Audiard’s penchant for crime in the underbelly of Paris precedes him. And while Paris, 13th District is still a lot closer to home for Audiard, there is a palpable playfulness about the way he goes about things here. Emilie Wong is a Chinese-French girl caught in the rut of her romance-less youth who is soothing the wounds of unrequited love. Camille, her perpetrator, is opinionated and is known to drive people away with his staunchness about life. And Nora is mistaken for cam-girl and is made to quit her law course to find a new job. In every sense, Audiard’s new film echoes the same theme that he is most well-known for - the simmering anger in discontented people and their hunt for true love – but this time around, he is also caught musing about the city of Paris with a gentle smile on his face.
Audiard’s gaze on Paris is slick. “Sexy” is the term that a few critics have used for Paris, 13th district and that’s because aside from the actual sex in the movie, there is a measured and artistic sense of direction about it. After working with the very talented Nicolas Jaar for the soundtrack of Dheepan, the 70-old-filmmaker uses Paris-based Rone’s eclectic blend of electronica and strings to imbue the film with a sense of “jolly grief” and accentuate the mesmeric black-and-white visual treatment of the film. The title is borrowed from the actual high-rise community of buildings in Paris (French and original title of the film being Les Olympiades), and Audiard and his writers pick a handful of stories from its vastness and tell them both in insolation, and also as pieces of a larger quest. It is indeed a quest for the writers to unravel the sexual mysteries of today’s Paris youth and reveal that each character looks to sex as its main source of respite from life’s everyday depravities. It shouldn’t be a matter of surprise that Audiard’s two writing partners are women (Céline Sciamma of Portrait of a Lady on Fire fame and Léa Mysius who wrote Stars at Noon with Claire Denis) as the film treats all three stories with a strange blend of tenderness, humour, and anger – the director in him enunciates this further through an interesting split-screen technique that lets the viewer feel closer to the characters. There is no moral radar in the film and the writers do not judge their characters but make misunderstandings and serendipities their strong plot points – in a superb scene, Nora (played by Noémie Merlant) has just been mistaken for a cam-girl named Amber Sweet and all her classmates, with viral video footage in their hands, ridicule her unanimously. Soon, Nora finds a friend in Amber Sweet to forge a beautiful relationship that ultimately changes her life.
But Jacques Audiard finds himself caught in two minds in the film. His take on the characters is a strange (and slightly confused) mix of detachment and empathy. There is an emotional and dramatic binding to each of the sub-narratives that’s typical of his films – In Read My Lips, he brings an ex-convict and a docile woman with hearing impairment together, and in Dheepan, a Sri Lankan refugee goes on a killing rampage in a Charles Bronson-esque kind of climax to extract himself and his family out of a tough situation - but the film’s stylization also limits it from becoming a riveting and comprehensive tale. Audiard is certainly keen on understanding his three main characters and his focus often shifts in tandem to the city and its multi-hyphenated vibrancy. This shift, however, isn’t always smooth.
Regardless, Jacques Audiard’s return to French cinema after a six-year break had to fetch something fancy, to say the least. Paris, 13th District is enigmatic and thoroughly enjoyable and is yet another chapter in his anthology of Parisian tales. With a wonderful central cast in place, comprising feature debutant Lucie Zhong as Emilie Wong, Makita Samba as Camille Germain, Noemie Merlant as Nora Ligier, and Jehnny Beth as Amber Sweet, that carries the pulse of the film with great skill, grace, and ease, Jacques Audiard has announced that he is still one of the best in the business today. Just as with many of Jean Luc Goddard and Eric Rohmer’s idiosyncratic works, Paris, 13th District is an alluring chronicle of the city of Paris and one is likely to have the film’s ambient soundtrack buzzing in their minds for a very long time. The film is currently streaming on Mubi.