Several Parisians try to figure out life, love and sex in the moodily shot black-and-white drama Paris, 13th District (Les Olympiades: Paris 13e). While the logline might sound like quite a few other French films out there, the names behind this project are perhaps a little more unexpected. In fact, The Sisters Brothers and A Prophet director Jacques Audiard has turned three short graphic novels from Sacramento-born, Brooklyn-based illustrator Adrian Tomine into a single feature, adapting their U.S. setting to the unusual Parisian location of his title, a mixed neighborhood full of 1970s high-rises.
Though not quite a home run, this sexy drama should appeal to arthouse viewers online or in theaters. Audiard’s involvement is the real selling point here, as apart from Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s Noémie Merlant, the cast is composed of very talented unknowns.
Paris, 13th District
The Bottom Line
Meanders, but finds its way.
Emilie (Lucie Zhang) is a French-Taiwanese girl in her late 20s or early 30s who hates her call-center job. It’s not exactly surprising, as she graduated from the prestigious Sciences Po School that normally churns out France’s leaders of tomorrow. But as we get to know Emilie, we get a sense that maybe she likes the lack of responsibility that comes with low-entry jobs (after she’s fired, she starts working in a Chinese restaurant as a waitress).
One of the ways in which Emilie also manages to survive in an expensive city like Paris is by living in the apartment that belongs to her grandmother, who is in a care facility. She even has a roommate, so she’s not only living rent-free but actually has some income. This is how she meets Camille (Makita Samba), a high-school teacher from a blue-collar Black family who’s looking for a living space closer to his school. Before she’s even made him an offer to become her new roommate, they’ve already had sex. Unlike in her professional life, Emilie likes her sex life to be stable and even a little predictable. Camille, with his steady job full of responsibilities, prefers a no-strings-attached approach to intimacy and relationships. Clearly, the stage for some drama is set.
This brief outline might suggest a very schematic, opposites-attract approach. But the screenplay, written by the director with Léa Mysius (Ava) and Céline Sciamma (who, perhaps not coincidentally, wrote and directed Portrait of a Lady on Fire), finds plenty of small moments in the exchanges between the characters that bring these people to individual life. It helps immensely that the actors have such great chemistry and that, deep down, both characters seem to know that they have areas in their lives in which they seem to prefer to float around rather than actually commit. Their insistence on the right to hesitate or not always fix or plan every last detail feels authentic rather than like some kind of millennial affectation, ensuring that their behavior feels believably human. This relaxed sense of naturalism also extends to the film’s numerous sex scenes, which can be sensuous but also funny or awkward, depending on the circumstances.
About 30 minutes in, there’s a brief moment in color that announces the start of a new segment. In this storyline, we meet Nora (Merlant), a woman in her early 30s from Bordeaux who has come to Paris to finally continue her previously abandoned university studies. She knows no one in town and is eager to make friends, but this is complicated by the fact that she resembles an Internet porn sensation, Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth). This leads to a lot of bullying and Nora’s precipitated decision to go back into the real-estate business. In one of the story’s unlikeliest turns — the plot gears grind in full view for a second here — she runs into Camille, who has taken a year off from teaching to help out in a friend’s real-estate agency while he does a post-doctoral program. The duo takes an instant liking to each other.
From here on out, the two stories start to intertwine in often fascinating ways. Since the script is based on three volumes of Tomine’s Optic Nerve series, the adaptation is at least partially successful because it feels like just two stories that slowly become one before diverging again at the end. But like other features that try to turn several short stories into one continuous narrative — Julieta from Pedro Almodóvar comes to mind — things are generally a little messy, can sometimes feel unfocused and occasionally ramble a little. But there are also thematic undercurrents that help keep things together quite organically, like the complex subject of education and the place it has in people’s lives and in French society.
While the Emilie-Camille-Nora threesome gets the lion’s share of attention, porn star Amber Sweet gets the proverbial short end of the stick. Her character is the least developed, even though her platonic relationship with Nora, which is almost exclusively virtual, plays a pivotal role in the film’s final outcome. The bond between these two fascinating women also feels a little more naïve than the rest of the material. This is surprising, because the narrative’s strong suit is how it examines the various ifs, buts and no-ways of contemporary rapports, sexual and otherwise.
Talented young cinematographer Paul Guilhaume, who shot several of Sebastien Lifshitz’s gorgeously composed documentaries (Little Girl, Adolescents), as well as co-writer Mysius’ feature debut as a director, Ava, again delivers some very strong work here. He, Audiard and editor Juliette Welfling find exactly the right balance between brief but suggestive shots of this little-seen corner of Paris and the protagonists in their surroundings.
The grainy and evocative black-and-white photography and multicultural cast also establish a link with that classic of French banlieue cinema, La Haine. In a way, Paris, 13th District plays like a spiritual sequel to that film that shows where and how the kids from the forgotten outskirts could have ended up as 30somethings in the 13th. All it would take would be to make all the right decisions, have a little luck and believe in the magic of cinema.