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Culture Film Reviews

Review: Paris, 13th District

This article was originally submitted on the 27th March

Rating: 5 out of 5.

During a single short scene of Paris, 13th District, Jacques Audiard’s extraordinary exploration of digital-age love and lust (not usually in that order), the colour palette changes from its usual monochrome to full-scale colour. The transition is shocking, and not simply because of the Wizard of Oz-like explosion of lights and hues. The image that first comes to us is of Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth), an online stripper and sex worker, here performing a birthday show for Baptiste, an unseen voyeur. More than any other moment in the film—one which is filled to the brim with passages of astonishingly empathetic beauty—we feel the potency of internet passion. The online world feels as though it is more vibrant, more real than any in-person relation ever could.

Set in the age of Tinder hook-ups and Skype relationships, Paris, 13th District presents an interwoven tale of four characters, told in an anthology format. It opens on a post-coital couple: Émilie (Lucie Zhang) and Camille (Makita Samba), a pair who have only just met. An aimless political science grad, Émilie works dead-end jobs and avoids her Alzheimer’s-addled grandmother. Camille, a secondary school teacher seeking a new purpose, struggles with commitment and emotional vulnerability. The two meet when Camille seeks out Émilie’s ad for a new flatmate, whereupon the two immediately fall into a no-strings-attached relationship. Their friends-with-benefits attitude towards romance—one that is endemic to our present age, born out the belief that we can detach emotion from physical intimacy—quickly devolves into jealousy. Camille is less interested than Émilie; Émilie’s personal life is in disarray; neither is quite mature enough to handle the other. 

Meanwhile, Nora (Noémie Merlant, of Portrait of a Lady on Fire fame), a thirtysomething estate agent returning to her unfinished undergraduate studies, finds herself confused for the webcam stripper Amber Sweet after an unfortunate use of a party wig. This case of mistaken identity leads to school-wide slut-shaming, a traumatic enough affair that leads her to abandon her studies and return to her work. Yet Nora’s curiosity leads her back to Amber Sweet, and the two begin a video-chat friendship that grows with time. 

Eventually, Nora meets Camille, and the four characters begin meeting and re-meeting each other with a beautiful sense of incident and whimsy. Their stories are effortlessly woven together, even as they seem unconnectable. Les Olympiades, the titular Parisian neighbourhood in which the film is set, provides a stellar backdrop to the stories at hand. Audiard’s direction gives it a real, lived-in feeling, one where each new setting feels abounding with life.

The characters have a similar lived-in sensibility. Émilie, for example, presents an attitude of rudeness and self-obsession as a well-curated exterior, of a sort that expresses itself constantly with Camille. Their dialogue, charmingly acerbic and occasionally toxic in its veracity, comes from a brilliant screenplay written by Audiard, the great Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Petite Maman) and Léa Mysius (Ava, L’île jaune). Their contributions are essential to a film of stellar characterization.

The film’s score, by French electronic musician Rone, provides a digital soundscape for a digital age. His pulsating electronica, awash in reverb-laden synthesizers, is perfectly attuned to the love conveyed through a laptop camera, and aptly so. Images of computer screens, cell phones, and other technological communicants become unexpectedly emotional symbols in this online world. Crucially, Audiard presents no judgement whatsoever. Quite the opposite: Paris, 13th District finds just as much authenticity and joy in a computer screen as in the most passionate physical encounters. Critics have labelled this film “minor” in comparison with other of Audiard’s works such as Rust and Bone and Dheepan. Yet to call it as such does a profound disservice to Paris, 13th District. It is a film that pulses with life, bounding between moments of exceptional accidentality next to characters of tender, intricate detail. At a time when technology continues to disrupt our lives on a personal scale, a profoundly empathic film such as this feels beautifully prescient.

Paris, 13th District is currently screening at Filmhouse

Image courtesy of David Monniaux via Wikimedia Commons