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‘Paris, 13th District’ Review: Love and loneliness in the City of Lights

Jacques Audiard’s almost-anthology movie struggles to turn the spark of intersecting relationships into a blaze of emotion.

SAN ANTONIO — Something should probably be cleared up for American viewers who watch Jacques Audiard’s French-language “Paris, 13th District” this weekend, and it’s got to do with this fussy drama’s title. 

Notice its native-language name “Les Olympiades" and you might briefly glimpse the word “olympians.” That would be incorrect, though not entirely inappropriate for this movie about soul-starved Millennials whose proximities to romance are measured in elite doses of self-questioning. In reality, both the English and French titles refer to the Paris neighborhood where that personal wandering (and wondering) unfolds. Audiard shows us enough of it – the living spaces, the streets, the clubs, the rooftops – that the initial emphasis on place makes enough sense, especially when filtered through a black-and-white visual aesthetic that gives the City of Lights a delicate sheen. 

And yet, it’s hard not to think of how fitting a name “The Olympians” would be for a film so baked with irony that its emotional insights end up a bit flavorless as a result. It stumbles between disco-tinged quirk and a more classically fashioned take on romantic rendezvous. The generous (or love-stricken) viewer might make the case that “Paris, 13th District’s” narrative hopscotch is a matter of Audiard – having written the screenplay alongside Nicolas Livecchi, Léa Mysius and master storyteller Céline Sciamma – replicating the essence of his protagonists’ fractured desires. 

The movie – sexy, radiant and narratively a bit too obvious – spends an hour and 45 minutes exploring the thicket of three lives tangled up at the expense of true feelings they think they’d rather keep to themselves, lest possibility wilt away under reality’s glare. That happens abruptly for Nora (Noémie Merlant), a thirtysomething whose brief return to school is interrupted by a classmate fatefully mistaking her for online porn star Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth). But fate has a sense of humor, and if Nora never wore that blonde wig to the club she might never have met Makita Samba’s Camille, a handsome teacher-turned-real estate practitioner for whom the line between casual and everlasting has been blurred. 

Then there’s Émilie Wong (Lucie Zhang), who comes across as the loneliest of them after Camille calls off their roommates-with-benefits partnership that dominates the first act. There’s a cultural poignancy to that, given Émilie’s Asian heritage and her tendency to shrug off mom’s requests to visit her sick grandmother, as if caught between where she comes from and where she is. Among this movie’s small ensemble, she might have the least hope for genuine connection. Yet it seems like it would do Émilie the most good. 

“Paris, 13th District” doesn’t know how to reckon with that, at least not in a way that deepens Émilie as a character beyond the lying-in-wait epiphany she represents. For as appreciably light as Audiard’s direction is, it’s got a way of rushing headlong into an ever-shuffling iteration of its component parts. The essence of Sciamma’s naturalistic scripts – the thing that makes her “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” feel mythic and her “Tomboy” devastating – can be glimpsed when unbridled joy pokes through the barbed wire of this movie’s relationships, but too often that spark is snuffed out before anything truly engrossing becomes of it. 

The film is at its truest whenever it returns to Nora and Amber, whose late-night conversations via the pixelized glow of online chats feel like a modern-day equivalent of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s” beguiling, fluid power dynamics. As with the painter she played in that movie, Merlant grants Nora a touch of vulnerability that’s enough to tug us into her ricochets between confusion and attraction. Hers is the most rewarding story in a movie constantly skirting the edge of anthology. 

The other two characters’ journeys feel bluntly rendered by comparison, their simmering romantic antagonism briefly coming to a boil in a key scene when Nora, Émilie and Camille are all in the same room. It has the tenor of confrontation without the sting; for a movie structured around constant exchanges – of occupations, personas, living spaces, lovers – “Paris, 13th District” comes across as having as much of a commitment issue as the trio of young Parisians it follows. And does the movie seem unsure of what to make of its characters, or is it just too easy to see where they’ll end up, and with whom?

Perhaps “Paris, 13th District” is more about the journey than the destination, the tip-toeing around unspoken desires that’s often manifested in sequences of intense physical passion (its R-rating is earned in about, oh, 10 minutes). The movie is frank about sex until you realize it’s very much also trying to be about sex, and the value we put on something that can be the most casual thing in the world to one person and the most sacred thing in the world to another. 

It’s an enticing dichotomy, and also a genre-defining one. For years sanctity and spontaneity have been reliable bedfellows at the movies, and the relationship makes “Paris, 13th District” a just-suitable-enough entry into the canon of young, cityfaring men and women searching for connection as grand as the towering structures around them. Even when in jungles of concrete, steel and glass, the movie might be saying, where one might really overcome their stubborn outer selves is in tangles of flesh, clothes strewn on the floor and the morning light a millennium away. 

"Paris, 13th District" is rated R for strong sexual content throughout, graphic nudity, language and some drug use. It's now available to rent on digital platforms. Runtime: 1 hour, 45 minutes. 

Starring: Lucie Zhang, Makita Samba, Noémie Merlant, Jehnny Beth

Directed by Jacques Audiard




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