For the attractive, restless, and easily distracted millennials wandering “Paris, 13th arrondissement,” space is tight, money is tighter, and decent work is hard to come by. Yet this loose-limbed romantic round – beautifully filmed in black and white by French director Jacques Audiard – shines with a spirit of playful and limitless possibility. Coincidences and misunderstandings abound: a woman attends a party where she is mistaken for a porn star. A real estate agent and a painter working in the same apartment realize that years ago they were a teacher and a student: two young men with big dreams that they temporarily put aside for “a detour into the real estate”.
And real estate, as you may have gathered, is at the heart of this charming and gripping film, which takes place in and around the high-rise complex known as “Les Olympiades” (French title original from the movie). Its towers dominate Paris’ 13th arrondissement, a riverside district known for its brutalist flourishes, repurposed industrial buildings and large Chinese and Vietnamese communities. Audiard has always had a keen eye on the neglected and untouristy corners of its hometown, especially in harrowing thrillers like “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” and “Dheepan.” But “Paris, 13th” is not a detective novel or a trawl in the depths. (The most extreme act of physical violence we see is a hard but well-deserved punch.)
Any warfare here is purely emotional and carnal. There are times when Audiard’s protagonists could star in their own benign contemporary rewrite of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” depicting their sexual conquests with wry detachment and a soup of competitive precariousness. The first two legs of the triangle are Emilie (Lucie Zhang), a young Taiwanese Frenchwoman working in a dead end call center, and Camille (Makita Samba), a black doctoral student who responds to her roommate ad. Camille, it should be noted, is a man, and handsome enough that Emilie sleeps with him and agrees to rent him a room, in that order. Soon they are roommates with benefits, an initially satisfying arrangement – for us too, given the sensuality and candor with which Audiard films their lovemaking – which only becomes complicated when Camille, averse to commitment, brakes, leaving Emilie with the bitter realization that she had more conditions than she thought.
This is just the warm-up act for “Paris, 13th arrondissement”, a free adaptation of three short stories by American-Japanese cartoonist Adrian Tomine. Audiard, in collaboration with its co-writers Lea Mysius and Céline Sciamma (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”), uprooted these tales from drab American suburbia, stripped down a few narrative elements, merged a few others – opportunely, if not always with elegance – and repotted them in what turns out to be surprisingly fertile French soil.
It is not an immediately intuitive couple of sensitivities; there’s little visual correspondence between Tomine’s tongue-in-cheek, muted-color panels and the busy black-and-white images composed here by cinematographer Paul Guilhaume, who likes to send the camera sliding scene after scene. But Audiard has a deft way with the source material (his recent adaptation of “The Sisters Brothers” is one of his best films), and here he slips Tomine’s murderous ironies and scathing observations into a solid overarching narrative fueled by garden variety lust, all consuming love and the mighty explosions of Rone’s electro score.
The best-preserved story follows Nora (Noémie Merlant), a white law student in her thirties who has just moved to the Olympiades. One night, she attends a party wearing a vampy blonde wig and learns that she is apparently the lookalike of a popular web cam girl who calls herself Amber Sweet (an excellent Jehnny Beth). Harassed and humiliated by her peers – a development that Tomine handled more convincingly – Nora drops out of school and soon crosses paths with Camille, joining the real estate agency he now runs. While it might not surprise you to learn that Camille and Nora’s professional relationship quickly shifts to the personal, nothing about their interaction — or Emilie’s gradual return to Camille’s orbit — seems predictable or circumscribed.
Results aren’t really the point here anyway. While Audiard loves its characters too much to deny them happy endings, it knows not to believe that love, especially young love, offers any hope of permanence. (A romance turns into a close-up of a passionate kiss that’s beautifully filmed – and so suddenly you can still feel it throbbing for moments after it’s gone.) He’s more interested in shading narrative ellipses and bringing out the working day texture of the worlds of its characters. Working skillfully with his longtime editor, Juliette Welfling, he immerses us in trips to the supermarket and the subway, long days at work and happy karaoke nights. He also introduces us to Camille’s little sister (Camille Leon-Fucien), who aspires to become a stand-up comedian (a thread borrowed from Tomine’s story “Killing and Dying”) and Emilie’s sick grandmother ( Xing Xing Cheng), who lives at a nearby nursing home.
Above all, Audiard certainly relies on its actors, gently pushing each one towards a simple, ordinary, never irrelevant question: what does your character want? – and coax out a very unique response. Merlant, as good as the amorous painter of Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” dives deep into Nora’s indecisiveness, laying bare her insecurities about the future as well as her unorthodox romantic past. Samba, as the story’s emotional linchpin and bookish Lothario, makes Camille both gentle and magnetic, someone whose sensitivity and openness to the many women who cross his life can be both vice and virtue.
The revelation here is Zhang, who makes a remarkable on-screen debut as the film’s most stubborn character: her Emily can be selfish, vain, impulsive and demanding, but she also has a fundamental integrity, a certainty about who she is and what she desires, which makes it hard not to root for her. Emilie can blend in with the crowd, as she does with the women she works with and befriends in a Chinese restaurant. But then Audiard films it in slow motion in that same restaurant, in a joyous hallucination of a sequence that becomes its own glorious expression of a burning, unbridled desire.
‘PARIS, 13TH ARRONDISSEMENT’
In French with English subtitles
MPAA R rating (for strong sexual content throughout, graphic nudity, language and some drug use)
How to watch: In theaters
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