BASICALLY…: Four individuals (Zhang, Samba, Merlant and Beth) navigate love and passion with each other…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
The career of French filmmaker Jacques Audiard has been pretty odd lately, going from hard-hitting and award-winning dramas like The Beat That My Heart Skipped, A Prophet, Rust and Bone and Dheepan, to off-kilter Western dark comedy The Sisters Brothers, and now has gone even lighter – but only in tone – with his black-and-white relationship comedy-drama Paris, 13th District which, like his other films, could not be any more different than what came before.
Based on a collection of short comic stories by American cartoonist Adrian Tomine, Audiard’s free-wheeling and episodic adaptation may understandably rub some people the wrong way, and I’ll admit that I found a few elements on display here rather testing of my patience, but there’s still something to admire about the distances it will go in order to create a strange and strangely alluring atmosphere that you simply don’t see a lot of in mainstream films nowadays. Nonetheless, its light and meandering approach to its supposed drama ultimately presents more barriers for itself than it possibly realises.
Paris, 13th District initially introduces us to Émilie (Lucie Zhang), a young Chinese-French woman whose lax attitude towards life and its responsibilities have basically turned her into a full-on terror; she hates her job at a call centre, acts rude and hostile to most people, and refuses to go visit her ailing grandmother in a nursing home. One day, a gentleman named Camille (Makita Samba), a teacher working on his doctorate, applies to be Émilie’s new roommate, and almost immediately the two start a physical relationship – except, to her surprise, Camille does not want to engage in full-on romance, for reasons we later start to understand when, much like spiteful Émilie, Camille begins acting like kind of a dick.
For a good chunk of this first third, the viewer is forced to sit through these two rather unlikeable people being horrible to each other and to other people (among their many nasty attributes, Émilie’s disdain for her job leads to unprofessional condescension over the phone, while Camille consciously fails to compliment his stammering sister’s attempts to break into stand-up comedy), and very rarely does the movie make you feel sorry for them because it’s not done a whole lot to make you feel any kind of emotion for these terrible people – Émilie in particular does and says things so obnoxiously and hatefully, it’s almost enough to make you think that this is the foreign-language romance film that should be called The Worst Person in the World. Watching them can be rather testing of one’s patience, since not only are you secretly not rooting for them to end up together, but that someone eventually comes along to slap some sense into these people.
Thankfully, that does happen with the arrival of Nora (Noémie Merlant), a 30-something university student who is quickly slut-shamed out of academia due to her strong resemblance to famous porn star and webcam girl Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth), and who strikes a relationship with Camille later on. Nora’s intrusion into this toxic two-hander romance is the right kind of kick up the backside that Paris, 13th District desperately needs, because unlike the other characters Nora is genuinely empathetic, as is Merlant’s performance as you see her genuine anger and sadness seep out in far more understandable situations. She and Beth’s Amber Sweet also share a number of, well, sweet scenes together which contain far more of a beating heart than the central relationship that Audiard wants us to focus on, and I think I may know why that is; Céline Sciamma, who wrote and directed Merlant in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, is credited as co-writer on this film, and of all the segments here, you can tell that Sciamma’s fingerprints are far more present on Nora’s storyline, and it shows as the filmmaker’s natural talent for writing poetically simplistic scenes and dialogue is clearly on display more than anywhere else, which really does make all the difference.
Audiard does direct a number of scenes with some sense of style and grace, coupled with some black-and-white cinematography that is rich and crisp to look at, and a refreshingly raunchy tone as our characters constantly get naked and do the dirty throughout, with little shame or embarrassment about their sexual nature while also avoiding the easy fetishization of their nude bodies. However, the drama itself is too light to truly consider as worthy of our full attention, because some of these main characters can be rather intolerable to spend time with, and you just don’t care if they work things out or not, making even the plot strands that actually do have weight to them (specifically the ones with Merlant’s Nora and Beth’s Amber) feel far less impactful than they ought to be. Better writing could easily have made some of these people at the very least easier to understand, instead of just presenting them as thin and self-absorbed caricatures half the time, which unfortunately means that while Paris, 13th District is definitely good-looking to the naked eye, beneath the surface is something a little lower than this director should probably be aiming for by now.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Paris, 13th District is a middling romantic comedy-drama which, despite its crisp cinematography and raunchy tone, doesn’t quite succeed at capturing the raw drama it wants to portray, thanks to some main characters who are more unlikeable than they are endearing or empathetic, though Portrait of a Lady on Fire duo Noémie Merlant and Céline Sciamma briefly step in to save the day as main actress and writer respectively.