By Mark Ross, Opinion Editor
Jacques Audiard’s Paris, 13th District squeezes three characters– and their libidos- into a Parisian residential suburb, stepping back, and documenting the consequences. The result is an edgy insight into sexuality, human nature, and the bizarre features of 21st-century relationships.
The eponymous neighbourhood, ‘Les Olympiades’ (also the title of the original French picture), is home to Émilie (Lucie Zhang) and her new Colocataire, Camille (Makita Samba), a debonair local teacher. Nora (Noémie Merlant) is introduced in the second ‘chapter’ as an innocent thirty-one year old who has moved to Paris to re-start her university studies.
And then begins the sex, which doesn’t really stop until the film’s cinematic finale. But this is far from a French remake of ‘American Pie’; rather a look at how much physical intimacy defines human nature, and what purposes it serves for different people.
For three very different characters, sex is the common denominator. Camille, the cool Parisian, instantly hooks up with Émilie, the nippy French-Chinese graduate weighed down by a call centre job and a judgemental family in China. After becoming an estate agent, the former sexualises his new colleague Nora– raised a lifetime away in Bordeaux– within minutes; his overt glares, I must add, being met with a razor-sharp rebuttal (just one of the many empowering female moments in the film)
But throughout these overlapping storylines, Audiard shows that sex can be more than just desire.
In one scene, Nora uncharacteristically dominates Camille, inverting the power dynamic between the two. This is a moment of renaissance: having discovered that her adolescent self was in a dubious sexual relationship with her uncle, the audience sees this sexual act as the therapeutic empowerment of a woman who has only ever known exploitation.
For Amber, an online ‘call girl’, sex is work. Her relationships with her clients are artificial and fleeting, far from the intimacy and passion of, for example, Camille and Emilie’s fling.
It is within this intricate web of relationships that the influence of screenwriter Celine Sciamma, of Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) and Tomboy (2011) fame, is felt most strongly. She uses the episodic structure to explore and evolve the identities of female characters, which celebrates the fluidity, and ambiguity, that is inherent in discussions of gender.
Audiard also weaves in subtle social commentaries on the eccentricities of modern life. The love-fest, for example, is backlit by the constant glow of screens. The ubiquity of technology – from Emilie’s excited Tinder swiping to Amber and Nora’s intimate facetime relationship – is a relatable picture of modern life; a refreshing break from the cliched romanticism that Hollywood continues to cheerlead.
A giddy Sorbonne fresher fawning over Nora– whom he mistakenly thinks is a porn star– shows us the alienating and degrading behaviours that excessive porn consumption can instil in young men.
And a scene in which Émilie pays her new flatmate to visit her Grandma, suffering from Alzheimer’s, on her behalf raises questions about identity, memory and familial loyalty.
Paris, 13th District shows the artificial, sweaty, unnatural and alienating lives that so many of us city-dwellers lead, unintentionally lamenting what humanity has become. But against his monochrome backdrop, Audiard reminds us that relationships – virtual or in-person, heterosexual or otherwise – are one of the few things that will always inject colour into our lives.
Whether you’re searching for deep dive into human nature, or merely, a stylishly sexy French picture, be sure to give this one a watch.
Featured Image: IMDB
Will you be watching this French social commentary?