Jacques Audiard’s Paris, 13th District sets up its interweaving mind-state from its opening shot; as we view the titular neighborhood of high-rises, peering into apartment windows and taking in flux of urban life that floods the film’s soundwaves. We quickly meet Camile (Makita Samba) and Emilie (Lucie Zhang), as the former answers the latter’s ad about possibly becoming roommates. Yet, once Camile enters Emilie’s apartment, this initial meeting turns carnal quite quickly, as they questioning each other back their love lives. He says he prefers to “channel professional frustration into intense sexual activity”; she decides to be even more direct, saying she prefers to “Fuck first, ask later.” Which, in a way, is kind of emblematic of the film to come.
Adapting three Adrian Tomine graphic novels and looking to put them together as one, Paris, 13th District quickly attaches itself to the idea of how people used to get to know each other before they have sex, and now it’s the opposite, as they share intimate desires with strangers they’ll never truly meet. Flirting with that inversion over its whole runtime, this meandering black-and-white drama seems to almost work itself as the Jules and Jim of the Millennial age. Audiard traces this new world, in which youngish people struggle to build meaningful relationships from connections that are founded upon (horny) quicksand, by being relatively uninterested in judging these characters; instead he watches them to see how they keep their balance. Written by Audiard, Léa Mysius and Céline Sciamma, the film unfolds with the nonchalance of the chance encounter that sets it all in motion, and expands itself like the roots of a tree.
Once Emilie and Camille become live-together friends with both benefits and conflicting agendas, we’re introduced to law student Nora (Noémie Merlant), and cam-girl Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth). Eventually, most of these people will cross paths with one another. The story’s latticework plotting can sometimes feel like a game of musical chairs, but who’s sleeping with who doesn’t change with the same frequency as everything else, and the fluidity of that change is what the rigid design of Paris, 13th District tends to reflect best. Who these characters are to each other, which cultural identities they wear, what they do for work, where they live, and the basic rules by which they live there are in such a constant state of flux that it’s no wonder that most of them can’t find any sense of consistency in the bedroom; only Amber, who shows up as Nora’s sexually empowered opposite, seems to have both feet on the ground.
The force of Rone’s electronic score helps the film a little bit in finding a physical dimension to its constant imbalance, which is sorely missing from the rest of a movie that hedges too many of its bets. The performances, though, are uniformly involving in a way that contradicts the varied experience levels of Audiard’s cast — newcomer Zhang gives Emilie a load of impetuous vigor and Merlant shines in her portrayal of hard-eyed desire — but the characters themselves often bump into each other in needlessly contrived ways that fail to bring out any new details about them.
It’s only in the film’s more larger aesthetic flourishes — moments where the camera’s iris closes in on its characters, or a sudden flash of color — that some of the more missing feelings are unearthed. It’s telling that the film’s possibly best scene calls attention to one of its bigger failings. When Emilie — running high on a jolt of post-coital euphoria — comes dancing into her job as a waitress as the diners burst into applause behind her, not only is it one of the precious few moments in which the character conveys any sense of joy, it’s also one where the movie seems to fully reveal her. But then there’s also scenes like the one in which a porn clip spreads through Nora’s law school class like wildfire; it’s one that’s sort of typical of a film that falters on whether it’s about real people in a semi-heightened cartoon world, or semi-heightened cartoon people in the real world. It’s fortunate that the frequent sex scenes tend to thread the needle and convey more about these characters than the actual dialogue ever does. One way or the other, it’s just nice to see them balance each other out. Paris, 13th District has plenty of incandescent desire to ruminate in, but over time the film overly segments itself to the point of being nearly trivial.
Paris, 13th District screened at the 2021 Chicago International Film Festival. It will be distributed by IFC Films in the U.S. sometime in 2022.