NEW IN THEATERS! French filmmaker Jacques Audiard’s versatility never fails to impress. He’s triumphantly tackled a multitude of genres, from Western (The Sister Brothers) to prison drama (The Prophet). His deeply moving Paris, 13th District showcases the filmmaker’s ability to mix several genres effortlessly – comedy, drama, and romance – into one fluid narrative. Although slightly too long and meandering at times, his grand ode to the City of Love is nevertheless endlessly engaging, insightful, and beautifully shot. Another winner for the spirited auteur, then.
Taking place amongst the concrete jungle of the titular district, the plot focuses on two couples. Young Émilie (Lucie Zhang) falls for her roommate, professor Camille Germaine (Makita Samba). Unfortunately, the conceited Camille isn’t interested in a relationship, which breaks Émilie’s heart. Yet, their connection begins to deepen, despite detours and obstacles.
In the meantime, 33-year-old Nora (Noémie Merlant) feels ostracized by the younger, cynical college students, who mistake her for porn star Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth). She consequently meets Amber online and gets a job at a real estate agency, where she meets… Well, I won’t spoil it. Tracing the two plots until they connect is one of the film’s many pleasures. Audiard ends the proceedings on a perfect note, one that’s bound to test the tear ducts of even the most cynical viewer. He avoids soppiness in favor of genuine emotion. Think the finale of Sofia Coppola’s seminal Lost in Translation.
Paris, 13th District is about more than just the characters’ coming of age. Through Nora’s eyes, it examines what it’s like to feel youth dissipating, and having to find yourself, perhaps via a kindred spirit. Audiard doesn’t stop there, making your mind wander with resonant moments: the discovery of Émilie’s “get thin” cellophane wrap; her hilariously frank relationship with her mom; Nora knocking someone out on the street; Émilie visiting her grandma; the list goes on. Worthy of mention is the copious nudity, which never feels exploitative.
“…the conceited Camille isn’t interested in a relationship, which breaks Émilie’s heart.”
The true-to-life repartee between the leads – at times tender, at others snappy, one minute heated, brutally cold the next – is a joy to behold. “You’re in love,” a character proclaims, matter-of-factly, “I’m not. This can’t go on.” Audiard and his co-writers explore the nonchalant spitefulness, the heartbreak, the ephemeral nature of youth. They seem fleeting in our memories, those moments of falling in love, experiencing jealousy, not fitting in, but they felt like eternity back then. The filmmaker nails nostalgia – a more difficult feat than it may appear.
None of this would have been possible without a strong cast, and the group of diverse, relative newcomers Audiard assembles more than rises to the challenges. Zhang, in particular, is a revelation. Sardonic and stoic, but equally vulnerable, she commands attention in every shot. The piercing scene where she gets a tragic phone call screams: a star is born. Likewise, Samba is believably charismatic, channeling his anxiety over familial issues into cocky confidence. Noémie Merlant’s Nora is more introspective, which fits her character, but bogs the story down.
Therein lies the film’s perhaps sole issue: Émilie’s energetic, emotionally versatile plot slightly overshadows Nora and Amber’s somewhat stagnant one. Luckily, Rone’s pumping synth electronic score, along with cinematographer Paul Guilhaume’s stark black-and-white (barring one shot) camerawork, compensate for the narrative lags.
The memorable opening shot of Paris, 13th District lovingly glides over windows of blocky buildings, peeking into the characters’ lives. These are just four of them. The eclectic Audiard will surely explore more in the near future. I’ll be first in line.
Paris, 13th District screened at the 2021 AFI Fest.
"…endlessly engaging, insightful, and beautifully shot."