There are two million stories in the City of Lights, and these are some of them. Threading three Adrian Tomine graphic novels into , in modern France, Jacques Audiard’s “Paris, 13th District” begins with a scene that proves mighty emblematic of the film to come.
Okay, technically it begins with a brief flash-forward and some woozy aerial shots of the title arrondissement — a diverse neighborhood of high-rises that erupted out of an Olympic-themed renovation program in the 1970s — as Paul Guilhaume’s camera peers into apartment windows and the symphony of urban life floods onto the soundtrack. But things don’t really get underway until Camille (Makita Samba) answers an ad from a headstrong French-Chinese girl named Emilie (Lucie Zhang) who’s looking for a roommate.
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He’s a handsome 30-something teacher with a natural ease that can sometimes curdle into arrogance, and she’s a flailing post-grad who thought that Camille would be a woman. The conversation quickly turns to carnal matters once Emilie invites her guest inside. When Emilie asks about Camille’s love life, he says that he “channels professional frustration into intense sexual activity.” Emilie, perhaps hoping to avoid one of those “My Night at Maud’s” situations where people talk themselves out of taking their clothes off, offers an even more direct reply when Camille turns the question back at her: “Fuck first, ask later.” It would make a fitting tagline for the entire film if it didn’t sound so awful out of context.
This, more than anything else, is ostensibly what holds the half-related parts of “Paris, 13th District” together: The idea that people used to get to know each other before they have sex, and now — in the world of Tinder and OnlyFans — people have sex before they get to know each other, and share intimate desires with strangers they’ll never meet. Flirting with the inversion of it all over the course of a meandering black-and-white drama that marries the weightlessness of “Manhattan” with the serendipity of “Chungking Express,” Audiard traces a brave new world in which youngish people struggle to build meaningful relationships from connections that are founded upon quicksand. Very horny quicksand.
As mercifully non-didactic as one would expect from any French movie about a constellation of hot people banging into each other as they rotate along their respective orbits “Paris, 13th District” is much less interested in judging these characters than it is in watching to see how they keep their balance. The script — co-written by Audiard, Léa Mysius, and her majesty Céline Sciamma — unfolds with the nonchalance of the chance encounter that sets it all in motion, and expands like the rounds of a song as new characters are added into the mix.
Once Emilie and Camille become live-in fuck buddies with conflicting agendas, we’re introduced to “frigid” law student Nora (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” breakout Noémie Merlant, an expert at playing constricted women as they emerge from their shells), and cam-girl Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth). Eventually, most of these people will also be introduced to each other, as well. The story’s mix-and-match plotting can sometimes feel like a game of musical chairs, but who’s sleeping with who doesn’t change with the same frequency as everything else, and the fluidity of that change is what the rigid architecture of “Paris, 13th District” tends to reflect best. Who these characters are to each other, which cultural identities they wear, what they do for work, where they live, and the basic rules by which they live there are in such a constant state of flux that it’s no wonder that most of them can’t find any sense of consistency in the bedroom; only Amber, who shows up as Nora’s sexually empowered negative image, seems to have both feet on the ground.
Blasts of Rone’s skittering pop score help lend a physical dimension to that sense of imbalance, which is sorely missing from the rest of a movie that hedges too many of its bets. The performances are uniformly involving in a way that belies the varied experience levels of Audiard’s cast — newbie Zhang gives Emilie a megaton of impetuous oomph, up-and-comer Samba has the poise of a new star, Merlant is basically the Meryl Streep of hard-eyed sapphic desire, and musician Beth adds some outsider energy spice to the group — but the characters themselves often bump into each other in needlessly contrived ways that fail to tease new details out of them.
It’s only in the overlap of split-screens, the narrow focus of a closed iris, or a sudden flash of color that feelings of change are galvanized with the kind of white-hot emotion that can make them stick. It’s telling that the film’s best scene calls attention to one of its bigger failings. When Emilie — high on a jolt of post-coital euphoria after having sex with a Tinder date on a break from her job as a waitress — dances back into the restaurant as diners burst into applause behind her, not only is it one of the precious few moments in which the character conveys any sense of joy, it’s also one of the precious few moments in which the movie doesn’t misapprehend the kind of digital connections that supposedly inspired it.
Beth’s performance convincingly taps into the performative nature of online sex work, but a scene in which a porn clip spreads through Nora’s law school class like wildfire is typical of a film that wavers on whether it’s about real people in a semi-heightened cartoon world, or semi-heightened cartoon people in the real world. It’s fortunate that the frequent sex scenes — expressively choreographed by Stéphanie Chêne with a grace that emphasises body language and interpersonal dynamics over jiggling flesh — tend to thread the needle and convey more about these characters than the dialogue ever does. One way or the other, it’s just nice to see them balance each other out.
“Paris, 13th District” premiered in Competition at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. It will be distributed by IFC Films in the United States.
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