"Paris, 13th District" Cannes Review
A call center representative, teacher, real estate agent, and online webcam model somehow find their lives coming together in the new Jacques Audiard film, Paris, 13th District (Les Olympiades).
Audiard has taken a special interest in the lives of resilient people set within his native country. The films Dheepan and A Prophet don't showcase France at its best, instead, they shine a light on the many problems Audiard sees. After taking a detour into the English-language for the unfairly ignored The Sisters Brothers Audiard (along with co-writer Céline Sciamma of Portrait of a Lady on Fire fame) once again sets his sights on modern French society, this time through the gaze of not one, but four main characters.
Our protagonists (or antagonists depending on your viewpoint) all reside within the titular district of Paris, a highly populated sector known for its mixture of modern and traditional architecture. Émilie is a phone operator at a cell phone service call center who is stuck in a rut both professionally and romantically. She’s a disappointment to her Taiwanese immigrant parents, who often call to tell her about her sister’s experience as a doctor in England. Luckily, her romantic prospects improve by the arrival of Camille, a lonely school teacher who is inquiring about the vacant room in her apartment. Carnal feelings impulsively take over their relationship, something Émilie prefers as she lives by the motto “fuc* first, talk later.”
At the same time, Nora is a real estate agent trying to reinvent herself by going back to school, despite being a dozen years older than her fellow students. Further compounding her misfit status is her striking resemblance to famous webcam model Amber Sweet. She soon receives the unwanted attention of lustful boys, forcing her to retreat from academic prospects. With morbid curiosity, Nora decides to meet her doppleganger and see if they share anything besides just looks.
Like Paul Thomas Anderson in Magnolia or Robert Altman in Short Cuts, Audiard acts as a puppet master, crossing and pulling the strings of his characters. Being that there are only four main characters compared to dozens within Anderson and Altman’s films, the interactions are more frequent. Audiard is interested in exploring the idea of opposites attracting, which brings out both the best and worst in each other.
These characters carry a lot of baggage with them, which often gets saddled onto their partner in an acrimonious fashion. Audiard and Sciamma take an authentic approach to these moments, with characters getting in heated arguments that sometimes lead to break-ups, and sometimes lead to sex. The film is quite sexually explicit, with each actor bearing it all for the black-and-white screen. Except for the exceptional Noémie Merlant, the cast consists of relative unknowns, a fact that never crossed my mind as they have the chops of veterans.
Speaking of black-and-white, the grainy cinematography by Paul Guillaume strips down the film to its rawest form. Like Sam Levinson’s Malcolm & Marie, the lack of color works to center our focus on the actors and their condensed surroundings.
While the beautiful cinematography could be guessed from still images, what is most surprising is the great electronic score by French musical artist Rone. Mixing pop beats with fluttery strings, the score embodies the clash between modernity and tradition that is present within the characters and the city itself.
Not without its problems, Paris, 13th District often gets too attached to the trio of Émilie, Camille, and Nora, leaving Amber to a lower supporting status, despite her having the only sequence of the film shot in color. Frustratingly, Jehnny Beth’s great work as the most interesting character isn’t given the attention that most surely deserves.
As filled with millennial insight as it is filled with nudity, Paris,13th District is a lighter affair from the dependable Jacques Audiard. Barring a few small setbacks within the script, the film is an arthouse delight that will connect with younger viewers, possibly more than they want it to.