And not least because, to be terribly honest, Paris, 13th arrondissement does not feel quite like a finished film, so any hunt for an author stamp must struggle with how much a first draft it feels. The basis is three different short stories, and it might be expected that this feels as strong as disparate plot threads that have been laid on top of each other, but which have never really been woven together, despite what seems like a film-long attempt to do that. In short, this is about the sexual customs of a few young people living in Les Olympiades (the film’s title in French), a residential complex in the 13th. arrondissement from Paris: Émilie (Lucie Zhang), living in financial insecurity and stressed by a sick grandmother; Camille (Makita Samba), who responds to Émilie’s call for a roommate, and after she’s overcome the disturbing shock of finding out that “Camille” can also be a boy’s name, they start having sex before stopping; Nora (Noémie Merlant), an adult who has gone back to university – the same university that Camille also went back to as an adult – and Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth), a popular camgirl who looks like Nora eerily when Nora is wearing a blonde wig.
You can pretty much sum up everything that happens to these four people under the umbrella of “this is about the sexual and romantic behavior of French millennials”, and I’m not sure there is a way to be less general. There is a lot that is good and something that is bad Paris, 13th arrondissement, but I think the cardinal sin is that it is so committed to letting its characters spread across the screen in all their naturalistic mess that it neither tries to “do” anything with their stories, nor to try to shape their personalities in a given way. At the end of the film, I could tell a little bit about Nora, very little about Émilie and nothing at all about Camille or Amber, and that’s not because the film has made an obvious decision to prioritize them that way. The other cardinal sin is that it feels like it’s attacking the subplots without any kind of strategy: for example, Zhang gives, I think, the best performance in the film, and as a result, Émilie feels like a pressure cooker of emotions far more. than Camille or Nora for the first 45 or 60 minutes, but she largely disappears from the film after that time (it runs to 105 minutes). I do not understand that it is meant to tell us anything about Émilie, or about Les Olympiades, or about young people and sex; it really feels like Audiard and the company simply could not juggle fire characters at the same time, so when they started pulling Amber in, they threw Émilie to make room.
It’s at least a little forgiving: if Émilie is the best performance and perhaps therefore the best Gradethe best reason is the strange but emotionally nourishing chain of conversations Nora and Amber have as the former begins to buy private time with the latter to figure out her own ambivalence about being mistaken for a camgirl. The film would certainly like to have something to say about how the young people communicate their existence through social media and the internet and smartphones and all that jazz, but I think these scenes are the only place where it actually manages to do that. And to be ready, it succeeds brilliantly! As I said, there is a lot that is good in Paris, 13th arrondissement, and the Nora / Amber scenes are brushed right up to “fantastic”. Merlant and Beth both do remarkable work in playing what must have been some very complicated scenes to perform. Merlant is in some ways making an information age version of what she was up to Portrait of a woman on fire, where she plays two completely separate but necessarily levels of emotion for much of the run, as she shows us both Nora’s suspicion of the whole internet sex affair, as well as her fascinated envy of the freedom it seems to give Amber, on top of having a simple, serious crush on his new internet buddy. Beth’s performance is more surprising, as she constantly has to combine “Amber the camgirl enacting fantasies”, “Amber leting Nora into her confidence” and “Amber manipulating Nora” and does so while spending a considerable portion of her performance not in the same room as her stage partner, perhaps not at all in the same room as a movie camera (we see her mostly on a laptop).
It’s extremely bold and interesting, and it’s by no means alone. Lots of individual scenes in Paris, 13th arrondissement is equally challenging for the actors and the viewer, although I do not think anything else is quite so well. The film has a considerable number of rather explicit sex scenes, honest but never pornographic; but they end up feeling a little “every French art film about sex”, in the performance and even more in how they have been a little arbitrarily pushed into the plot (especially the first one, where the film indulges for the first and only time in chronological discontinuity) . I would not say that it is “lazy”, but at some point, graphic sex scenes in French films are as much a kneeling as e.g. slow-motion explosions in American movies, and Audiard does not seem to find them very interesting or important; they are like there, taking place, are all daring-but-not-really.
In the same way kneel: Paris, 13th arrondissement has been shot by Paul Guilhaume in very elegant black and white and I doubt why. It gives the whole thing just the slightest sheen of “expensive advertising campaign for a perfume series”, creating a sense of intellectual removal that is not productive, while at the same time making it all beautiful in a largely leveling way. It all comes from the same thing: I just do not quite feel that the people who make the film had figured out their approach to making it, not as a visual art object or a dramatic narrative. Sometimes their instincts served them well; often even. But as a whole, Paris, 13th arrondissement is not really connected, and must content itself with being less than the sum of its very admirable parts.
Tim Brayton is the editor-in-chief and primary critic of Alternate Ending. He has been known for appearing on Letterboxd and writing about even more movies than he does here.
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