Though uneven & trying a bit too hard to appeal to a specific audience, Jacques Audiard’s Paris, 13th District breathes new life & color into conventional love stories
Jacques Audiard’s Paris, 13th District opens on a Parisian building. More specifically, on a young woman named Émilie (Lucie Zhang in her feature debut), a struggling telemarketer, singing naked in her apartment. Next to her is Camille (Makita Samba), a literary professor, her new roommate, new lover, future ex-roommate, and future ex-lover. Broken credits chop up the action, staggered throughout the first lengthy scene. There’s an ephemeral nature to all of it, the sex and romance just as fleeting as the credits only fully shown for a moment, though Audiard has no problem spending longer with the revolving bodies of this story.
Audiard’s film swirls around the brand of their love as much as their love itself, attempting to explore romantic and platonic relationships of the 21st century. Paris, 13th District, as shown by its monochromatic look and pop-synth score, desperately wants to engage with its young protagonists and its young audience members, finding wisdom and wit in pockets of interest, only to betray these fascinations with cheap wrap-ups and thinner characters than originally expected.
Audiard’s film takes on the form of separate vignettes. First, the relationship between Émilie and Camille. Second, the relationship between Nora (Noémie Merlant), an older law student, and Amber (Jehnny Beth), a popular camgirl with a physical resemblance to Nora. Finally, a mixture of all four millennials, swapping stories and sexual partners without much fuss. As expected, though, with chaptered films, certain relationships take precedence over others, and excitement created in the first act dissipates by the third.
Émilie and Camille, and their relationship, lends itself well to Audiard’s script, co-written with Céline Sciamma and Léa Mysius. They feel like real people, like people on a first date, having their first fight, remaining friends even if one of them’s in love. Their dialogue and arc has realism baked in, and the first act of the film overpowers the rest due to their chemistry. Zhang, in particular, finds power in this scrapbook of little moments, the full weight of differing emotions, thoughts, and actions combining for an incredible performance, one that makes Audiard’s film from a fine one into a great one.
Once Audiard leaves the two lovers, the film becomes more of a chore, as Nora looks for connection, only to find it with a camgirl she was mistaken for, spending all of her time and money on video sessions in which they chat like old friends. But Nora, and her tricky past, revealed but never explored, never pushes beyond a bland sketch of a person. She isn’t given the time, backstory, or emotional resonance that the other characters receive, and her time with us feels like it’s in a different movie altogether, scattered in importance and relevance. Nora is shoehorned into a story that isn’t about her, even if her love life and sex life deserve the same amount of attention.
Audiard shows sex as an eventual byproduct of these relationships, the stimulant that drives initial connection. An element of melodrama drifts above the fray, heartbreak seen as necessary to move forward, which can be seen as both insightful and absurd, just like Paris, 13th District’s characters. They often act on impulse, playing games with one another, a cat-and-mouse that’s reminiscent for any 20- or 30-something currently wading through the (online) dating landscape. Because of this, the film has weight when it’s mean and cold, and finds effectiveness when it is breaking hearts rather than mending them. The moments of nastiness combined with times of apathy bring together the peaks of this little drama, cratering when the writers assemble unearned redemption. Sweetness sometimes comes off as untrue sentimentality, and happiness ends up almost coming in vain.
Audiard’s film works in parts, ebbing and flowing in success depending on the characters being followed. It’s difficult not to compare it to one of the relationships depicted by the French director. The highs still outweigh the lows, and so, giving it a go still has worth, but it’s far from perfect or seamless, problems poking through any stretches of pure magic.
Paris, 13th District is now playing in theaters.