The City of Lights and the City of Love serves as the backdrop for a less than swoony romance in “Paris, 13th District.” Directed by Jacques Audiard, who co-wrote the screenplay along with Léa Mysius and Céline Sciamma based on Adrian Tomine’s series of short comic stories, the film’s French title, “Les Olympiades,” is derived from the vibrant neighborhood in the 13th District where the story’s characters live, work, and intersect. The city is an integral piece of the story, without ever resorting to taking the audience through all the tourist highlights; there’s no Eiffel Tower, no Seine. And instead of shooting the city in brilliant color, Audiard tells his story in black-and-white—although that story is more timely than the usage of that monochromatic medium would suggest.
“Paris, 13th District” is a modern love story that rotates around three characters, all hovering around the age of 30. Émilie (Lucie Zhang) has a prestigious degree, but has chosen to do the opposite of realizing her potential, working a series of menial jobs, from call center agent to waitress, instead. She meets Camille (Makita Samba), a teacher facing professional hurdles, when he answers her ad for a room to rent. The pair’s initially casual fling is complicated by Émilie’s perception that their relationship might be something more. After Camille moves on and starts working in real estate, he becomes involved with his new coworker, Nora (Noémie Merlant), who is supremely uncomfortable with herself and with relationships. But she begins to open up to Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth), a cam girl who she strikes up conversations with after becoming fascinated with her and her apparent self-confidence.
There’s no one main character in “Paris, 13th District,” as the story moves between each of their perspectives equally, and in an equally compelling manner. The actors all turn in totally committed performances in a project that requires them to bare themselves both physically and emotionally in one intimate scene after another. They aren’t always likeable—Émilie is occasionally whiny and almost frustratingly self-destructive, while Camille possesses sometimes a meanness about relationships and others’ feelings—and they don’t need to be; they feel real, and the tendency to go straight for physical intimacy first and leave all sentimentality on the table to sort through later is in step with the casualness toward love exhibited by a culture that knows how to swipe right, and not much else. This is one instance where having multiple hands on a script feels like it was beneficial, granting further insight into these different and ever-changing male and female perspectives, although the juggling of several different characters doesn’t always allow Audiard to dive particularly deep into the feelings the characters express.
“Paris, 13th District” doesn’t put too fine a point on its ending, and the tale of aimless individuals trying and failing to connect may not feel like new territory, but it’s always interesting to watch these people figuring it out. It doesn’t hurt that every beautifully shot and lit setting, from crowded nightclub dance floors to tiny, sparse apartments, is helping to tell the story of these characters’ lives. It’s a less than idealized love story, but one that explores the complications and messiness of love and friendship (even family, as we get to meet Camille’s teenage sister, an aspiring stand-up comedian), and how feelings shift and evolve as they play out through the intersecting lives of several people.
“Paris, 13th District” will open in select theaters and on demand on April 15. Runtime: 106 minutes. Rated R.
Media review screener courtesy IFC Films.