“Paris, 13th District” – Lucky number [MOVIE REVIEW]

Lucie Zhang as Emilie, Noémie Merlant as Nora, and Makita Samba as Camille in "Paris, 13th District." Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Makita Samba as Camille and Lucie Zhang as Emilie in “Paris, 13th District.” Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

A new film by Jacques Audiard is a reason to celebrate. This thoughtful filmmaker of surprising depth is known for “Read My Lips,” “The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” and my personal favorite, “A Prophet.” He has a talent for taking characters, upending their lives, and then upending ours. He’s done this once again with “Paris, 13th District.” 

Based on a trio of short graphic novels by Adrian Tomine, Audiard dissects love and life in his four disparate characters, all of whom are missing something fundamental within them.

Emilie Wong, French-Chinese, a rebellious young woman in her twenties, has two seemingly deep driving forces. First, to live unfettered on her own terms, and second, to be a constant disappointment to her family. Emilie, a graduate of the prestigious Science Po (the Paris Institute of Political Studies) and an accomplished pianist, has rejected all of her talents as a slap in the face to her tiger mother to work menial jobs and hook up with random guys for sex. Living rent-free in her grandmother’s apartment, she advertises for a female roommate. When a man, named Camille, answers the ad, she is intrigued into bed by him. 

Camille is a teacher at a local high school who will soon leave to pursue his doctorate in literature. In the meantime, this apartment checks off all the boxes. He, too, is into sex without attachment and the arrangement of rent with benefits works very well for him. But Camille is easily bored and he tires of Emilie and her insatiable needs and lack of ambition quite quickly. His judgments of others, including his own sister, are superficially based on his view of  academic accomplishment or goals reached. He thinks he’s incredibly deep but then he’s blinded by his own light.

Emilie, however, has found something in him that she’s unwilling to give up. She may actually have fallen in love with him, an emotion that confuses her. Intellectually, Emilie, like Camille, has always been able to divorce herself from emotion. Sex has always been the perfect antidote to cognitive intimacy. Her desire for the detached Camille is confusing. To her, he is inscrutable. When he leaves, she falls into a life of even less meaning with even more random sex.

Noémie Merlant as Nora in “Paris, 13th District.” Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

Nora, 32, from Bordeaux, has arrived in Paris to continue her studies. Friendly, older than her classmates, she is determined to succeed in law school. Deciding to participate fully, she comes upon a link to a party for the law students. Her apparent openness is just a manifestation of her physical and mental insecurity. She feels a need to be someone else, someone mysterious, someone sexy at that quasi anonymous party. Attired in a sexy top, hot ultra mini, with a glamorous blonde wig covering her mousy brown hair, she arrives at the party. What she couldn’t possibly know is that, dressed that way, she looks exactly like the video porn queen of the moment, Amber Sweet, a cyber goddess well-known to many of the young male law students in attendance. Nora is confused but flattered by the attention she is receiving and the selfies that are being requested. She is viciously brought down to earth when one such young man whispers vile requests in her ear. Things only get worse at school when pictures of her are conflated with screen shots of porn queen Amber Sweet. Any hope of rebuilding a professional life in Paris is shattered and she is thrust back into the territory she abandoned in Bordeaux – real estate.

Contrivance notwithstanding, it is at this point that she is brought into contact with Camille, on hiatus from school, who is now unsuccessfully running a real estate office and in need of an assistant. Nora is it and Camille is smitten. She is definitely not boring, and his attentions are definitely what she thinks she needs.

Enter number four. Nora’s life was upended by Amber Sweet. Who, she wonders, is this person and what is the rationale for selling yourself on the internet in the most demeaning of ways. And here is the Audiard touch because the most socially unacceptable person, the  porn star, is the only one who has a firm grasp of who she is and what she does. Audiard has stated that his influence in this movie was Eric Rohmer’s “My Night at Maud.” In that film, a man and a woman with an unmistakable sexual attraction spend the night talking about everything from Pascal, the mathematician, to provincial life, but not of love. It is their thorough exploration of themselves that is more erotic than the sex that they don’t have. For Emilie and Camille it was always sex and no conversation. But while Amber and Nora may talk around and about sex, mainly they talk about themselves in ways neither has ever explored. It grows from a timid (Nora) and prurient (Amber) discussion to one of self esteem and respect. 

Noémie Merlant as Nora and Makita Samba as Camille in “Paris, 13th District.” Photo courtesy of IFC Films.

As Nora grows, deepens, and finds meaning, so too, in a more limited way do Emilie and Camille. Each has their own poignant moments of growth, Emilie trying to connect with her elderly grandmother suffering from Alzheimer’s, and Camille, brought down from his self constructed pedestal by his down to earth father who chastises him for his lack of empathy.

This film, difficult to wrap your head around, will be interpreted in different ways by different people, dependent almost entirely by their own life experience. But make no mistake. This is all about love, not necessarily of others, but the impact love of self, or lack thereof, has on the psyche. 

Audiard has the extraordinary ability to create characters who grow exponentially as the story unwraps and envelopes them. He did this to enormous effect in both “The Beat that My Heart Skipped,” and even more in “A Prophet.” None of his characters in “Paris, 13th District,” including Amber Sweet, are the same at the end. No one was entirely broken at the beginning and no one is completely fixed at the end. But no matter, the trip to self exploration and emotion is a not to be missed ride.

Written in collaboration with Céline Sciamma and Léa Mysius, Audiard has created his own version of “My Night at Maud’s” in reverse where it starts with sex and ends with conversation. Paul Guilhaume’s cinematography is beautifully nuanced and extremely deceptive. The palette he used was so complex and layered that I didn’t recognize until the end that virtually the whole movie had been filmed in black and white. There is one short sequence in color, but I’m not giving away that piece of the puzzle. 

The actors were outstanding, many of whom were unknown at the time, and all of whom, in this or other films, have been nominated for the César Award (the French Oscar). Lucie Zhang, Emilie, has created a new kind of slacker defined by sexual profligacy and a willful lack of ambition. Makita Samba was Camille, portraying a deceptive approachability that was hiding a deep seated disdain. Noémie Merlant, Nora, was most recently seen in “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” She has an uncanny ability to portray awakening sensuality coupled with despair and hope. 

Jehnny Beth, Amber Sweet, seems to have changed the most from video porn star to empathetic friend, but that would be very misleading because she was never less than she appeared whether it was performing virtually or exploring an off-camera  friendship. She knew who she was no matter where she was. It was we who, using our own faulty judgment, ascribed characteristics that suited our needs, not hers. And that is what good acting and directing is all about.

In French with English subtitles.

Opening Friday April 15 at the Landmark on Pico, and the Laemmle Glendale, NoHo7, and Playhouse 7.


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