The luminescent cityscape of Paris is captured through an honest, loving gaze in Paris, 13th District, a melancholy yet tender-hearted exploration of millennial romance. Directed by Jacques Audiard and co-written by Audiard, Céline Sciamma and Léa Mysius, the film chronicles a series of love affairs—simultaneously fleeting and fated—amid a cluster of young adults living within the city’s titular arrondissement. In fact, the film’s native French title is Les Olympiades, referring to the twelve buildings that serve as a commercial and residential hub in the treizième. Loosely based on several different comics by American cartoonist Adrian Tomine, the film’s distinct narratives intersect and diverge with purpose, effectively mapping the oft-illogical trajectory of falling in love. Though exquisitely shot and superbly acted, certain segments of Paris, 13th District nonetheless feel more fleshed out than others, particularly due to one couple’s inimitable kinetic connection.
The film opens with Émilie (Lucie Zhang) reclining nude on a couch, drunkenly singing into a karaoke microphone and awaiting the embrace of her lover Camille (Makita Samba). Their demeanor is playful and sweet, caressing each other with placid contentment. However, the film is quick to inform us that this is not, in fact, where their love story starts—rather, how it pans out in the present, bringing us back to demonstrate how “it began like this.” Working as a salesperson for a phone company, Émilie feels directionless, living in one of the aforementioned Olympiades buildings in an apartment once owned by her grandmother. Desperately needing a roommate to pay the rent, she’s initially resistant when Camille shows up in-person to answer her ad. She was originally set on a female co-inhabitant, but their undeniable sexual chemistry persuades Émilie to give him the room. This is incredibly convenient for Camille, who teaches at a nearby school while working on his doctorate. But the pair’s roommates-with-benefits arrangement quickly dissolves into a one-sided hook-up, and they soon part ways. “You’ll miss me,” one tells the other before separating.
A few months later, Camille meets Nora (Noémie Merlant), a former law student who dropped out mid-degree to escape a cruel rumor. They both end up working for the same real estate agency owned by Camille’s friend, a business in desperate need of revitalization. Luckily, Nora was a top-seller at her uncle’s agency in Bordeaux, and she swiftly gets the office in tip-top shape. Enamored with her entrepreneurial savvy and commanding intelligence, Camille begins to see Nora casually—though she keeps him at arm’s length. After all, she gets all the emotional fulfillment she needs from a newfound friendship with a cam girl named Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth), especially as their nightly chats become less transactional and more mutually invested.
So much of Paris, 13th District is predicated on the sexual language of both inconsequential flings and romantic trysts, always revealing the characters’ own sentiments surrounding the perceived permanence of each encounter. Boredom, frustration and self-consciousness are just as prevalent as rapture, satisfaction and friskiness. These characters are also revealed to have difficulties in their personal lives that can’t help but seep into their sexual exchanges—familial loss, unresolved trauma, dashed dreams. These troubles aren’t necessarily unique experiences, but their severity is alleviated when each individual shuffles through relationships, landing on a compatible partner who can, at the very least, provide a temporary salve from the pressures of life outside of the bedroom. In a very French fashion, the film also insists that mid-coitus is where the pleasures and pangs of human emotion are starkly revealed, providing a glimpse into our most animal instincts and desires. Sometimes, what we desperately need is simply a release—of sadness, elation, orgasm—in order to make sense of our shitty situations.
No character straddles the ever-shifting line of self-satisfaction and interpersonal dejection more perfectly than Émilie, if only because newcomer Zhang imbues the role with an authentic jolt of millennial malaise. Discontent with her job, her appearance, and her relationship with her family, she’s undoubtedly given the fullest narrative, though it’s often contingent on her despair. Samba’s Camille is a fabulous foil to Zhang’s downcast Émilie, unburdened by the societal weight that repeatedly stymies her. The film’s lush black-and-white photography also emphasizes the beauty of polarity—opposites attract, creating a fuller and more beautiful picture than even-keeled hues of gray ever could. As such, their chemistry is magnetic in its oppositional nature, making what appears to be a comparatively “average” romance crackle with tension. In fact, the realism of their spark and subsequent fizzle makes their affair all the more romantic—it is emblematic of a million true love affairs, as formative as they may be fleeting. In comparison, the far-fetched connection forged by Nora and Amber Sweet can’t really hold a candle. Though Merlant is a veteran at conveying erotic longing (whether for a betrothed portrait subject or a carnival ride), it’s hard to feel that her strengths are being played to here. As the timid, scarred Nora, she feels stunted and perhaps even miscast altogether. Had she inhabited the role of Amber, Merlant may have had more to sink her teeth into.
Though the storylines don’t necessarily match each other in scope and depth, Paris, 13th District is a prurient wonder, displaying the tandem silliness and sadness of love in all of its possibilities. The landscape of Paris is certainly shot from a loving resident’s eye, eschewing outsider perspectives and blown-out romanticism for something as tangible as the arrondissement it depicts. Though Paris has been historically labeled as an inherently romantic city, what truly makes it such a global destination for couples is the seemingly infinite presence of outwardly devoted lovers ambling down the city streets. However, one doesn’t need to look to Paris—let alone one of its 20 arrondissements—to find the true essence of love, which transcends sloppy man-made borders. One can find that, just about anywhere, love is often painful—it can jade us, it can be taboo. Love can hurt too much to even participate in, or it can drive us mad for even trying. But true, immutable love can also liberate us from suffocating traumas, or perhaps reveal just how shallow we may have been in the past. More than anything, to love another person wholly means (at least attempting) to love and understand yourself. After all, even after a seemingly perfect and established relationship dissolves, you’re stuck with who you are forever.
Director: Jacques Audiard
Writer: Jacques Audiard, Céline Sciamma, Léa Mysius
Stars: Lucie Zhang, Makita Samba, Noémie Merlant, Jehnny Beth
Release Date: April 15, 2022 (IFC Films)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Filmmaker Magazine, Paste Magazine and Blood Knife Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan