Paris, 13th District

There’s nothing like a French film with a lot of strong sexual content to remind American folks that our sex lives ain’t shit. I’m sure that wasn’t the point Jacques Audiard (known for 2009’s A Prophet and 2012’s Rust and Bone) was trying to make when he directed his latest film Paris, 13th District. But French filmmakers have a long-standing tradition of showing us how sex in cinema should be done — a tradition that the film industry over in these parts often ignores completely. (These days, that has a lot to do with not getting on the bad side of Chinese government censors.)

For this movie, Audiard took a trio of short stories from American cartoonist Adrian Tomine’s comic book series Optic Nerve and cobbled together a tale about the intimate lives of three single people, set in the titular arrondissement (read: administrative district). First up, we meet Émilie (Lucie Zhang), a feisty Taiwanese woman who immediately strikes up a friends-with-benefits relationship with her new African-French roommate, Camille (Makita Samba). Of course, this arrangement goes sour when Camille gets a girlfriend, leaving a predictably smitten Émilie jealous, heartbroken and, eventually, looking for a new roommate.

 Camille moves out and moves on, getting close to Nora (Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s Noémie Merlant), a French woman who unfortunately gives off some frigid vibes in the bedroom. She has a more emotional bond with a cam girl (French musician Jehnny Beth) whom Nora was mistaken for during her brief time at university, which she left due to constant harassment. As tender as their moments together are, Audiard is obviously taking the piss out of our online-obsessed culture, showing how people would rather have a relationship on the internet than in person.

Shot mostly in black-and-white — just like recent Oscar winner Belfast, it’s a monochromatic film with a brief scene that’s, for some reason, shot in color — Paris is a sleek yet confining view of Parisians getting their rocks off in the big city. As much bumping and grinding as these characters do, they don’t appear to be having a swell time generally. Émilie may devote her work breaks to having quick hookups with dudes from dating apps, but she’s also dodging spending time with her senile grandma. Camille is a pretentious prick who can’t even give his sister, who has a stutter, words of encouragement as she pursues a career in stand-up comedy. And Nora is just trying to forget about the illicit affair she had that made her rush off to Paris in the first place. 

Audiard has assembled a love triangle wherein two of the participants are people of color — and he’s also made sure female perspectives are properly fleshed out, thanks to having Portrait writer-director Céline Sciamma and frequent Arnaud Desplechin collaborator Léa Mysius on board as co-screenwriters. Dude has made a progressive tale of complicated urban love the woke crowd will appreciate.

And yet, as much as these characters literally let it all hang out (big ups to the main players for being comfortable enough in their skin to show us a lot of it), they’re still deeply self-serving and really need to work on looking inward. Audiard, no stranger to making films that capture beautiful people at their ugliest moments, follows in Tomine’s footsteps and crafts a story about emotionally stunted people who — despite having voracious sexual appetites — aren’t that fun to be around. 

However, unlike Tomine, Audiard gives our dysfunctional romantics hope for the future at the end. Hey, Paris, 13th District may be about some fuck-ups, but they need love too. 

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