VIFF 2021 Review: Paris, 13th District (Les Olympiades, Paris 13e)

Written by Taylor Baker

86/100

Jacques Audiard’s Paris, 13th District is a metaphorical mic drop on the anthology romance films you might know from the last twenty or so years like New York, I Love You or Berlin, I Love You (very original titles, as you can see.). Audiard last flooded cinema screens with 2018’s The Sisters Brother. An unorthodox western built on great characters and beautiful cinematography. Based on Patrick DeWitt’s novel of the same name. Likewise Paris, 13th District is based on a previous written work. Four of Adrian Tomine’s short stories, Amber Sweet, Killing and Dying, Summer Blonde, and Hawaiian Getaway.

Each narrative is woven together building on the characters and tensions of the previous segments. It first builds itself on the back of a very capable newcomer to film Lucie Zhang as Émilie Wong draped nude on a couch singing karaoke to her new lover and a character we’ll come to spend a large amount of the next hour and forty so minutes with Camille Germain played sincerely and unquestioningly by Makita Samba. One day Camille knocks on Émilie’s door inquiring about a room for rent. Which leads to a weeklong passionate fling between the two. Ending as suddenly as it began with cold and delicious spiteful humor from Émilie sitting at breakfast dummying up new roommate rules now that they won’t be romantic partners.

If it seems a bit conventional and unsubstantial that’s because it is on the surface. The pain these twenty and thirty something budding adults are navigating is at the periphery of the story. Émilie’s grandmother is slowly dying. The apartment she’s living in and renting out the room to Camille is also her grandmothers, who now lives in a nursing home a short distance away. Yet Émilie cannot bring herself to face her, despite her demanding mother’s insistence that she go see her. Camille is likewise navigating his own heartache which in his words has him not ready to date anyone, not just Émilie. Naturally this assertion evaporates when he meets his teaching replacement, Stéphanie played by Oceane Cairaty. 

Camille leaves Émilie and moves in with Stéphanie. At this point the film’s introductory segment that starts with Émilie singing karaoke on the couch ends distinctly with an image of Jehnny Bett’s Amber Sweet beginning a cam show mostly nude except for some lingerie while brandishing a vibrator. It’s a powerful shift tonally and visually that resonates long after the credits roll. Two women brandishing mechanical objects trying to play at something, to feel something, to reach something. It’s not a clean metaphor nor is it a clear one, but it leaves something in your teeth to think about, especially as each of these women develop throughout the film.

This second act though actually isn’t as much about Amber Sweet as it is about Noémie Merlant’s Nora Ligier. Nora, a 33 year old woman, recently left her career in real estate with her uncle to go back to school in Paris with the goal of achieving a law degree. While attending university she decides to attend a party with her classmates. In preparation of the event she purchases a wig and dolls herself up. While at the party the boys Amber was performing for at the beginning of the act mistake her for Amber. Which leads to a university wide rumor of students laughing at Nora. Climaxing in a cacophony of phone notifications and a wall of students in a lecture hall each bathed in the light of their smartphones watching Amber’s videos in stifled laughter while Nora attempts to stutter her way through a question for the professor.

Each of these characters has an intimate pain which you might call trauma at their core, a past, present, or looming future tragedy on their mind and in their heart. Trying to process who they are and who they want to be while navigating the eternally messy all too human pursuit of romance. Hurting each other and themselves as they stumble through life. At once a beautifully photographed fully realized vision of contemporary life for meandering millennial adulthood in Paris, and a sterling depiction of how short stories can be seamed together to reach something deep and beautiful in film. One of my favorite scenes of the year which encapsulates the eternally human with the new technological age is Émilie playing an old piano reading sheet music off an iPad, eventually she has to lift her hand up to scroll to the next section. It says everything, and nothing. Some things never change, despite our new tools, and new ages.

Paris, 13th District Trailer

Paris, 13th District was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver Film Festival.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

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