Paris, 13th District Review: For the Lovers

Don’t you love Paris when it sizzles? Paris, 13th District whisks audiences to a corner of the 13th arrondissement for three tales of young love. Director Jacques Audiard (Dheepan, Rust & Bone) creates a film of invigorating vitality. Working with screenwriters Céline Sciamma (Petite Maman) and Léa Mysius (Ava), Audiard adapts three stories from the graphic novels of Adriane Tomine. These are very hot, very French tales of Millennial love told with spot-on messiness. Paris, 13th District might be the work of a veteran master, but the artist truly appreciates and understands his subjects.

The film offers three stories divided into clear chapters, but characters bleed and storylines intersect. The unifier is the corner of the 13th arrondissement known as the Olympiades. This very vertical pocket of Paris’s southern corner, housing much of the city’s Chinatown while bordering the Left Bank, houses a dense population of immigrants, young people, and aspiring dreamers scraping by in the City of Lights. The first tale of Paris, 13th District largely occupies the space within a tall apartment looming over the city. Emilie (Lucie Zhang) is a mouthy telemarketer looking for a roommate. She gets a knock on the door from Camille (Makita Samba) and is taken aback: she was expecting a woman.

However, Camille reveals in the interview that he likes to channel his frustration from work into sex. He soon moves in and, as roommates, Emilie and Camille share their bodies with more liberty than most Toronto roomies share condiments. The apartment sweats with passion, heat, and, eventually, jealousy.


Nora and Amber

As Camille and Emilie navigate the boundaries of their relationship, they also explore family ties. Emilie visits her grandmother in a home and watches her mind slip away. A child of immigrants, she avoids her family, somewhat aware of their disappointment that she isn’t putting her university to use. Camille goes home to a grieving father who’s lost his wife and raising a daughter on his own. Meanwhile, as Emilie lives rent-free in her grandma’s apartment, she tries to control Camille. He understandably finds the power dynamic a boner-killer.


The power dynamics of sex assume another perversion as 30-year-old Nora (Noémie Merlant, particularly magnetic among the grounded performers) arrives in Paris to return to school. All’s going well for Nora until she goes to the club one night with her class. On a whim, she buys a blonde wig. However, some randy boys in her class mistake her for a popular webcam star. They ask for some selfies and she politely obliges amid her confusion. Her mistaken identity goes viral and her new wind on life is over before it starts.

As Nora crosses paths with Camille in the Olympiades, though, she learns to find sex empowering again. They find sparks of the early passion that Camille enjoyed with Emilie, although their affair has roots of mutual respect. It’s awkward and messy, though, as they navigate love/work balance as colleagues who bang. Samba’s chemistry with Merlant is just was strong as his rapport with Zhang, which lets one story flow fluidly into the next.

Then there’s Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth), the cam girl who resembles Nora. She eventually teaches her lookalike all she needs to know about her body, intimacy, and confidence. Audiard explores the lives and loves of Millennials without judgement.


The Worst People in the World?

The film’s liberal attitude of sex, relationships, and responsibility should speak especially well to younger viewers who haven’t quite found their footing in life, and aren’t especially bothered by living afloat. Moreover, Audiard and cinematographer Paul Guilhaume root Paris in a larger tradition of young minds yearning for something new as they capture the city in stark black and white. The palette evokes Woody Allen’s Manhattan and Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha with its angular eye and intuition for characters who learn to see the world beyond mere blacks and whites. (Comparisons to La haine are inevitable, but similarities end after the combination of French, apartments, and black-and-white.)


Like those films, Paris, 13th District captures the city in a very distinct contemporary sensibility even though the monochrome could easily serve as a throwback. Instead, this film is acutely aware of the tightly confined spaces within which the characters define themselves. It invites an opening up of their environments, most notably in the brief interlude of colour marked by Amber’s online sex show.

More so than Manhattan and Frances Ha, however, Paris, 13th District is a kindred spirit to Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World. Like Julie in Worst Person, Emilie, Camille, and Nora are finding their place in their world at their own pace. They’re defining goals, freedom, and happiness outside of the norms their parents used. Their lives are messy. Their love lives are messier. However, like Julie, they live unabashedly in and for the moment. It’s energising to see another portrait of contemporary life where people look forward, rather than back. Much like Julie’s run through Oslo, the bursts with which Emilie, Camille, and Nora course through Paris leave one feeling refreshingly alive.


Paris, 13th District opens in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox on April 15.