Paris 13th District Adrian Tomine poster featured Movies Reviews 

Paris, 13th District

By | April 13th, 2022
Posted in Movies, Reviews | % Comments

[Header artwork by Adrian Tomine]

Based on several short stories by American cartoonist Adrian Tomine, French auteur Jacques Audiard’s latest film, Paris, 13th District (French: Les Olympiades, Paris 13e) is a black-and-white drama exploring sex and relationships in the current day City of Love. It follows the lives of Émilie (Lucie Zhang), a call center operator; Camille (Makita Samba), a teacher and her new roommate; and Nora (Noémie Merlant), a mature law student, whose life is turned upside down when she wears a blond wig at a party, and is mistaken for the pornstar and cam girl “Amber Sweet” (Jehnny Beth).

Let’s get this out of the way: there’s a lot of graphic sex and nudity (though nothing full frontal from the guys, unsurprisingly), and coupled with the black-and-white cinematography, I was really worried Paris, 13th District would be a chore to get through, mistaking gritty realism for depth. It isn’t, thankfully: the cast’s strong performances, punctuated with some dry humor (who ever heard of a guy called Camille, right?), and a jaunty synthesized score by Australian artist Rone, manages to make this a quietly engaging series of messy love stories.

It’s an episodic exploration of how sex can complicate love (romantic or platonic) and life, and vice versa: Émilie falls in love with Camille, but he’s only interested in her physically. Camille in turn falls for Nora, but she is only physically interested in him — mentally, she is preoccupied and fascinated by her lookalike Amber, who is similarly an older, unmarried woman with no children, albeit for completely different reasons. In many ways, Paris, 13th District is an ode to the way modern life can forge the most unlikely bonds: Émilie and Camille would never have met each other if they didn’t have to share an apartment, nor would Nora have her awakening if not for the online world of sex work.

Another intriguing element is that Émilie is Chinese: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a British film, let alone a French one, with a Chinese lead, so it was quite striking to see a main character speaking (and singing in) Mandarin alongside French, or checking in on the situation in Hong Kong. She’s an immensely relatable character, dealing with disappointing her family, the stress of financial stability, and the melancholy of having an older relative she’s been saddled with looking after — thematically, there’s a lot of overlap with other western projects starring Chinese actresses, but this is certainly the most starkly realistic.

However, the film is arguably primarily a character study of Camille, a highly educated Black man, who talks down to his teenage sister for wanting to be a stand-up comedian, and who approaches Nora — who is white — completely differently from the way he does Émilie; a lot can and should be written about the optics of his relationships, and how they reflect his aspirations. None of the protagonists are perfect people, and it’s a testament to the script and the cast that they never become unlikable: Émilie can be too immature, and makes an especially stunning, if understandable, decision regarding visiting her grandmother, while Nora has a violent temper (a bit of humor that definitely feels a lot more awkward after the Will Smith–Chris Rock slapping incident), and makes some pretty transphobic comments.

Audiard and cinematographer Paul Guilhaume’s camerawork, which was presumably intended to emulate the desaturated art in Tomine’s comics, does a great job of contrasting light and dark elements, ensuring it never resembles a murky, grayscale version of a color film, and that we feel like we’re in Paris during whatever time of day it’s supposed to be despite being in black-and-white. They deploy splitscreen during phone conversations, which is a smart way to make it feel like a comic, and to let us see both actors’ performances simultaneously, but also to show how modern communication can divide us, instead of bringing us together.

So how accessible is Paris, 13th District to a non-cinephile, especially if you’re unfamiliar with foreign-language drama? (And by drama, I mean drama, not an astonishing hybrid of genres like Parasite.) It’s genuinely more watchable, funny, and better paced than a lot of overly ponderous indie films, and ends at least one of its stories on a satisfying, crowd-pleasing note (the other seems weird for weird’s sake.) Highbrow viewers might charge it doesn’t explore its characters deeply enough, or that it should’ve been darker, and while I would agree with all that, it’s a pleasantly diverting look at modern love; it may not be the best film from Audiard, co-writer Céline Sciamma, or Noémie Merlant, but it’s hardly a miss either.

Paris, 13th District will be released in theaters and VOD on Friday, April 15 — do check it out if you’re curious.


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Christopher Chiu-Tabet

Chris is the news manager of Multiversity Comics. A writer from London on the autistic spectrum, he enjoys tweeting and blogging on Medium about his favourite films, TV shows, books, music, and games, plus history and religion. He is Lebanese/Chinese, although he can't speak Cantonese or Arabic.

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