The recent works of French director Jacques Audiard haven’t been up to par with his early-2000s projects basked in much more interesting themes and notions, A Prophet and Read My Lips specifically. Nevertheless, I appreciate his versatility in the genres he covers, from westerns to crime dramas, and his stylistic approach. Audiard’s inspiration for the graphic novels of American cartoonist Adrian Tomine comes from his insight into human nature. The cartoonist has a distinctive writing technique that goes inside the head of the characters in his stories. He showcases the most private insecurities to the reader by examining their expressions and body language more than the dialogue, even though that aspect also displays their affinity.
There’s a connection between Tomine and Audiard’s work in terms of their dramatic tangibilities. So if someone were going to bring those novels to the big screen, it would be Jacques. The director’s latest work is an adaptation of three of Tomine’s stories. He forms them into intertwining tales of modern love and desire in the digital age set in the Les Olympiades, a district located in the 13th arrondissement of Paris. From that location comes the film’s title, Paris, 13th District (or Les Olympiades in its native French), in which its high-rise flats provide the required backdrop for this series of stories. It’s an anthology of contemporary romance not so much in the vein of Paris, Je T’Aime, but more so if Eric Rohmer’s Full Moon in Paris or My Night at Maud’s were divided into separate parts and focused on today’s generation.
Albeit Audiard, Céline Sciamma, and Léa Mysius’s screenplay doesn’t reach the emotional weight of Rohmer’s. The first character we meet is Émilie (Lucie Zhang), a Chinese-French underachiever, who lives in her grandmother’s apartment. She is looking for a roommate, and there arrives Camille (Makita Samba), a teacher at a nearby school. They hook up as soon as he moves in, complicating their dynamic as roommates. Their relationship changes drastically when he brings a co-worker over for dinner. It takes them a while to figure their companionship out, as they are constantly adjusting their amorous “rules of engagement”. They don’t know what they want at the end of things, but they continually adjust their limitations.
After thirty minutes pass of the film’s runtime, we meet Nora (Noémie Merlant), an early-30s law school student who, after buying a blonde bob-cut wig, gets mistaken for a cam girl called Amber Sweet (French musician Jehnny Beth). This causes great noise at the university and makes it hard for her to go to class without ridicule. After a month passes, we get a quick glimpse of how Émilie is doing – she got a job as a waitress. However, we quickly switch to Nora as she gets a job at the same real estate agency as Camile, and unlike Émilie, the instant she gets the job, she sets the boundaries between them. As the movie continues, the characters interlace, slowly connecting and forming deeper bonds.
Although Tomine carefully captures this generation’s erotic or romanticized tangles, the impact and emotional heft in Audiard’s adaptation are lacking. Most characters are not grounded. The way they speak seems too fictional because its screenplay is overly romanticized. Because of such, a significant disconnect between source material and script happens. The former elegantly mend the relationships so they can feel true to life, while the latter has a colder demeanor. Another problem is that some segments of the story work while others only scratch the surface of their true potential. It gives a proper introduction to each of these characters we will follow for a hundred minutes. Nonetheless, when it draws onto deeper and darker themes, it goes into another vague side-story.
Only a handful of films successfully have covered love (and the anxieties that come with it) in a digital world and implemented those aspects in their narrative (dating apps, cam girls, etc). Regardless, this isn’t the actors’ fault; they are the saving grace. Although newcomer Lucie Zhang and Makita Samba are charming and engaging to see, you’re fond of Noémie Merlant and Jehnny Beth by the time the end credits arrive. Although most of it is via Skype, their chemistry is palpable. Unfortunately, this is by far Audiard’s worst feature, and it’s frustrating when you see the talent behind it. There are great charming performances, beautiful black and white cinematography by Paul Guilhaumes, and Rone’s score is banging and catchy. Still, its screenplay and direction lack a coherent vision and depth. – Hector Gonzalez
Paris, 13th District opens in select theaters and will be available on-demand on April 15th.