French Kisses: “Paris, 13th District”
From Jacques Audiard, a soulful romantic roundelay.
The Nut Graf: “Paris, 13th District” (in theaters and available on demand, *** stars out of ****) is the latest changeup from France’s Jacques Audiard, an appealingly stylish tale of young love (and sex) in the funkier corners of City of Light. Plus: An annotated Audiard filmography
The auteur theory — the idea that a filmmaker’s personality and outlook inform all aspects of his or her work — is so baked into how we think about movies that a changeling like Jacques Audiard can strip a person’s gears. If you care anything about films from places other than Hollywood, chances are you’ve seen an Audiard movie, maybe a few, but each is so dissimilar from the others that the name has trouble sticking. The weird thing is that the movies, which I tick off below, are almost all very good and at the very least worth grappling with. I won’t say that his latest, a seriocomic love triangle called “Paris, 13th District,” is up there with his best, but it’s chic and frisky and at times very touching, and it’s refreshing to find a movie about the sex lives of people in their twenties and thirties that doesn’t stint on the sex. It’s currently in theaters but is also available as a $6 streaming rental on Amazon and elsewhere. It’s in black-and-white, of course.
In fact, there’s a bit of a “Breathless” vibe to “Paris, 13th District.” You can feel it in the offhanded cinematography, the way the camerawork simultaneously de-glamorizes/re-glamorizes the gray streets of Paris, and it’s there in the three main characters, who are impetuous, attractive, selfish, and soulful. They’re pains in the butt and they’re ecstatically alive. (The film also has similarities to “The Worst Person in the World,” in that it’s about youthful mistakes gradually shading into something starting to look like wisdom.) If there’s a breakout star, it’s Lucie Chang as Émilie, a young woman working a boring call-center job and living from hookup to hookup. Advertising for a roommate, she’s startled when an applicant named Camille (Makita Samba) turns out to be a man, a schoolteacher working for his doctorate. They sleep together and then she decides he’ll do as a roomie. (She quotes an old Chinese proverb — “Fuck first, see later” — that she most certainly has made up for the occasion.) The trouble comes when Émilie finds herself falling in love with a man who insists “We have fun, but we’re not a couple.”
Over in another corner of the arrondissement is Nora (Noémie Merlant), a recent arrival to the city whose wobbly self-esteem is made worse by her resemblance to a sex-cam worker whose video makes the rounds of her fellow law students one day. I’ll spare you the details of how Nora crosses paths with Camille and how she ultimately reaches out to the sex-cam worker, Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth), but “Paris, 13th District” definitely strengthens as it goes, becoming an engaging and sweet/sad daisy chain of emotional yearning. I’d argue that the only off-key note comes in the very last moments, a resolution that seems too tidy in a story about the messes we make of life.
Briskly paced and scored to a pulsing scrim of electronic mood music, the film takes place far from tourist Paris in the high rises, nightclubs, and storefronts of the gritty neighborhood known as Les Olympiades (the movie’s original French title). Also worth noting: Merlant played the painter in 2019’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” whose writer-director, Céline Sciamma, helped adapt “Paris, 13th District” from four short stories by the American graphic novelist (and New Yorker cover artist) Adrian Tomine.
About those other Jacques Audiard movies: The writer-director, now 69, was working as a screenwriter as early as 1974, but only moved into directing in the 1990s. His first three efforts made a minimal impact in the US, but he broke through with “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” (2005, link takes you to the trailer), a gorgeous neo-noir remake of the 1978 James Toback film “Fingers,” with a charismatic star turn by Romain Duris as a young tough torn between a thuggish father and a concert pianist mother. It’s unfortunately not available for streaming. His next film is, though, and it’s one of the greatest of all prison movies. “A Prophet” (2009) is the story of a young petty thief (Tahar Rahim) who looks like he’ll be raw meat on his arrival on the inside but who rises through the prison hierarchy to become a hardened criminal alpha male; it won the Grand Prix at Cannes, a ton of César awards, and was nominated for the foreign-language Oscar.
“Rust and Bone” (2012) seemed to come out of nowhere: An adaptation of a Craig Davidson short story about the relationship between a down-and-out kickboxer (Matthias Schoenaerts) and a marine-wildlife trainer (Marion Cotillard) who loses her legs to an aggrieved killer whale. The two stars and a tone of exhausted romantic despair make it work. “Dheepan” (2015), a Cannes Palme D’Or winner, centers on a Sri Lankan freedom fighter (Anthonythasan Jesuthasan) who with a makeshift family flees to Paris, where he gets dragged into a turf war between rival drug gangs — did I mention you never know what this director is going to do next? How about an American western, and a terrific, too little seen one: “The Sisters Brothers” (2018), in which Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly play hired assassins on the trail of an accused thief (Riz Ahmed) who’s also being stalked by a private detective (Jake Gyllenhaal). It’s a fluky and often very funny tall tale about the dangers of decency at the edge of the frontier, and if you think no movie can be bad with that cast, you’re right.
As different in style and subject as can be imagined, these movies are united only by their maker’s fascination with characters on the fringes of society and experience. All except “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” can be rented on demand, and “Beat” can be found on DVD.
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