After a diversion into English-language filmmaking with the underrated Sisters Brothers, Jacques Audiard returns to his home town to reshape a trio of stories by American cartoonist Adrian Tominet into a sexy, o-la-la-’ing French take on Manhattan. It’s a stylish, sweetly sincere and rather romantic investigation into modern dating that will resonate in a pent-up post-lockdown world.
Shot in cool black-and-white and lit like a classic romance, Paris, 13th District follows three millennials brought together in the ’70s tower blocks of the city’s 13th arrondissement. There’s Émilie (Lucie Zhang), a self-centred twenty something who checks in with her mother back in Taiwan but shirks visits to see her ailing grandma in a nearby care home. Her lust-at-first-sight tumble into bed with her new roommate, teacher Camille (Makita Samba), a man with a slash-and-burn approach to his love life, soon fizzles awkwardly when his eyes turn to a colleague.
Into the mix comes Noémie Merlant as Sorbonne postgrad, Nora, brightly starting over after moving to the city from Bordeaux. It’s a love triangle that soon reshapes itself when a case of mistaken identity – the one major contrivance the film allows itself – brings Nora in contact with cam-girl Amber Sweet (Savages’ Jehnny Beth, effortlessly transferring her on-stage charisma to the screen). Those tower blocks are the only concrete thing in this crazy swirl of relationships forming, breaking apart and occasionally reforming.
There’s a lot of sex in what follows: hot sex, meaningful sex, meaningless sex, even some cam-sex. There’s bad sex in there too, although it is incredibly hard to spot (Paris, 13th District doesn’t really have it in it to make sex look bad). But it’s not the sex that’s the focus – okay, maybe a bit – but the feelings it engenders: the way it can bring relief from loneliness but leave a greater emptiness, like the comedown from a drugs high (there are some of those too). The way it can bring bodies together while pushing souls apart, and how fragile a connection can be when its built on sexual chemistry and not much else. When two people go on an actual date here, it feels oddly quaint.
Presumably to avoid all this coming over like the filmmaking equivalent of dad dancing, the 69-year-old Audiard enlists Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) and Léa Mysius (Ava) to collaborate on a screenplay that foregrounds its female characters. Zhang is terrific as the spiky but vulnerable Émilie, a little adrift but tenaciously recentering herself after a rocky start. And the film locates its beating heart in Nora and Amber’s tentative connection. ‘We’re not BFFs’, Amber tells Nora in their first chat. But the second and third, they’re sharing confidences and laughing at Amber’s awkward on-camera encounters with a dog-loving client.
It’s maybe not a major Audiard work – not in comparison with A Prophet and The Beat My Heart Skipped – but Paris, 13th District is definitely a film that speaks to the moment. After a year and a half of lockdown-imposed celibacy, its expression of horny impulses in confined spaces is beyond relatable. And with the inexorable rise of app dating, and all its psychological abrasions, it asks some important questions: do we give up our most private spaces, our bodies, too easily to the great (and often grim) imponderables of the internet? How did we get from lame chat-up lines in bars to dick pics?
But it’s not judgy or lecturing, and there’s nothing too didactic here – and maybe not a lot to linger over either. But if you’re looking for a couple of hours of sexy Parisians hooking up, falling out and finding their feet again, all set to pulsing electro and with a baked-in romanticism that makes a built-up corner of Paris feel like Casablanca, Audiard and his co-writers have made the perfect film.
In selected UK cinemas on Feb 14 and on Curzon Home Cinema Mar 4, 2022.