Paris, 13th District Programme Notes

Spoiler warning: these notes are best read after viewing the film. They contain discussion of plot and character details.

Skin drips with sweat, at once sizzling and mundane, the convoluted mish-mash of neurological webs pulsing pleasure through the body, animalistic instincts preserved in the heavenly state of the sheer physical; a precious fraction of a second before the mind takes over, tarnishing it all with the bitterness of overthinking. Pleasure, in Jacques Audiard’s Paris, 13th District, is fleeting but all else feels impossibly permanent - humiliation, heartbreak, illness. Adapted from three different stories by American cartoonist Adrian Tomine, the film is a patchwork of intertwined tales within the busy streets of the French capital’s bustling 13th arrondissement.

It all begins when Camille (Makita Samba) knocks on Émilie’s (Lucie Zhang) door. The young woman has little interest in taking the man in as a roommate; she was looking for a female companion, after all. Regardless of the initial resistance, Camille makes his way into the apartment, charming the occupant with words delivered with a precise balance of confidence and wit. ‘I channel professional frustration into intense sexual activity’, says the teacher, to which his potential landlady replies, ‘Fuck first, see later’ - a Chinese proverb, she nonchalantly clarifies.

To Émilie, there is no such thing as a euphemism - the truth is best served cold, on an unceremonial plate of honesty. When things with Camille become intimate, the woman wastes little time prancing around the elephant in the room. The two have fun together, they live together, they walk around the house naked and feed each other yoghurt. What next, then? Newcomer Lucie Zhang masters this unfiltered frankness, a zillenial zest for directness that exudes out of her with such ease it feels almost impossible to believe this is only her acting debut.

If Émilie stands for the reckless spontaneity of the young, Camille encompasses the generation’s anxiety-inducing need for carefully crafted perfection. God forbid one falls prey to vulnerability, which only leads to the fearsome unpredictability of commitment. Better to arm oneself with arrogance, a sturdy bridge built at the expense of any meaningful connections. And so the teacher bypasses the raw in lieu of the calculated, parading through life with armed guards at both sides of his emotional gates.

Through this dance of candour and obliviousness, Audiard builds a timely examination of modern relationships. Shot during the pandemic, Paris, 13th District pulsates with accumulated lust, not only for the carnal but for physical in its purest essence; a lust for presence, for company, for the comfort found in seeing oneself mirrored in another. Émilie twirls amongst tables at a restaurant and kisses strangers in the night as if to plead others for a pinch of reassurance - that she is there, that she exists within the brutalist buildings of the arrondissement, that these structures haven’t entirely absorbed her.

The city in itself drips with lust, too. The buzzing of the apps intertwined with the buzzing of text messages that, while unread, hold within them the thrill of possibility. Loud music escapes from open windows and half-closed doors, muffling groans of pleasure shared between strangers who happened to swipe right while half-drunk on expensive cocktails they probably can’t afford. As the night surrenders to the persistent knocks of early morning, nameless bodies walk defeatedly towards routine, erasing the blurred memories of meaningless encounters with each step.

It is fitting that Audiard returned to his native language after a decade-long foray (2018’s Silver Lion winner The Sisters Brothers and 2015’s Palme D’Or winner Dheepan) to explore the intense feelings brought in by imposed isolation. Not only that, Paris, 13th District also marks the director’s first female-centred project since 2012’s Rust and Bone, with the Frenchman enlisting writers Léa Mysius and Céline Sciamma to help him pen the screenplay, the latter’s touch at its most prominent when the story introduces the viewer to Nora, played by Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s Noémie Merlant.

Whereas Émilie and Camille emphasise a guttural yearning for the tangible, Nora stands for the heightened eroticism of the abstract. Screens, despite its potential for enhancing solitude, act here as a conductor for deeper intimacy as real-estate agent Nora forms an unlikely bond with camgirl Amber Sweet, played by the impossibly cool Jehnny Beth. It is Amber who adds a fleeting splash of colour to the monochrome cinematography of the film, as if she exists outside of the concrete constraints - societal or physical or else - that bind Émilie, Camille and Nora to one another. Once she is introduced to the quadrangle, the dynamics become murkier and yet clearer, a testament to how it only takes one self-assured person to steer a herd towards treasurable enlightenment.

Early on, when Émilie and Camille initially part, the woman spitefully remarks, ‘You’ll miss me’. When the two eventually meet again, the man proves her right. Puzzled, she drops her usual smugness, ‘I’m the kind of girl who guys miss?’, she says it as if a question. In this fleeting moment of self-doubt lies untarnished relief, a thrill of being needed and an all-consuming craving for validation - an apt encapsulation of all that makes Audiard’s ode to being beautifully lost and eternally horny such a sublime revelation.

Rafa Sales Ross
Freelance film journalist
19 March 2022

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