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Paris, 13th District review: Sex and the City (of Lights)

Architecturally, there’s no confusing New York for Oslo, or Oslo for Hong Kong, or Hong Kong for Paris. But view these major metropolises through the lens of twentysomething and thirtysomething dating culture, and they start to look more alike than different. The language of being young and horny and uncertain about the future is universal. You don’t need a tour guide to identify that emotional skyline, or to see yourself against it.

As its title suggests, Jacques Audiard’s new film, Paris, 13th District, is a snapshot of the City of Lights. To get more granular still, it’s predominantly set in a particular neighborhood: Les Olympiades, a culturally diverse, visually distinctive district of high-rises that Audiard shows off immediately with a series of breathtaking pans, gliding up the side of towers and peering into open windows. Yet there’s nothing so environmentally specific about his portrait of hot, young Parisians playing musical mattresses while trying to sort out their lives. It could be set in any epicenter of hustle and bustle — including any of the cities, each a former host of the Olympics, after which the tallest buildings of Les Olympiades are named.

Émilie looks over at Camille in Paris, 13th District.

Inside one of these skyscrapers, Audiard finds the first of his lovers: Émilie (Lucie Zhang), naked, crooning into a karaoke mic. Émilie, who dropped out of college and now bounds aimlessly from one entry-level job to the next, is sleeping with her new roommate, the schoolteacher Camille (Makita Samba). It’s a fun fling for him, clearly something deeper for her. Or, as the ladykilling Camille eventually puts it, “You’re in love, I’m not.” They seem incompatible in their respectively exasperating traits, her petulant jealousy scraping loudly against his arrogant aloofness. A bad match. Or are they?

This messy romantic entanglement gets messier with the introduction of fellow dropout Nora (Noémie Merlant), who becomes a co-worker — and, with time, maybe more — to Camille once he leaves teaching for real estate. Merlant, who played the smitten painter of Portrait of a Lady On Fire, has the expressiveness of a silent-era starlet. She’s been granted the most distinctive and hence most interesting subplot of Paris, 13th District, in which Nora is constantly mistaken for an internet porn star named Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth, who doesn’t look that much like Merlant, but oh well). The celebrity and her doppelgänger eventually meet via webcam, with their unusual virtual friendship just one of a few ways that the film situates its characters in a modern world where hooking up or getting your rocks often is but a swipe away.

Nora stares blankly while in a nightclub in Paris, 13th District.

The Amber Sweet dilemma springs from a short story by graphic novelist Adrian Tomine. (A sliver of narrative involving Camille’s stuttering little sister pursuing a career in stand-up has been lifted from another entry in the same collection, Killing and Dying.) There is very little of Tomine’s voice in this very loose adaptation of his work, scripted by Audiard, Léa Mysius, and Portrait writer-director Céline Sciamma. Some of his stories, for one, did feel specific to their backdrop, a depressed America of roadside Denny’s and East Coast sports arenas. They had the admirable irresolution of great short fiction — vivid vignettes of disappointment and longing that built to ellipses instead of periods. And Tomine told them plainly, through elegantly stark illustrations favoring little details of setting and expression.

Audiard preserves the general disillusionment of Tomine’s work; all of his characters are floundering to some degree — ditching school or a career, trying to find themselves in the attraction of others. But he filters that element through a more energetic, romanticized style that recalls Tomine only in the limited color palette of the black-and-white imagery. To capture the excitement of chaotic early adulthood, the director reaches for flashy flourishes, like the occasional split screen, or the iris that forms around Émilie as she races through the rain, high on ecstasy in multiple respects. The score, from French electronic act Rone, is a persistently whimsical companion, edging every moment of these fictional lives toward catharsis.

Makita Samba and Noémie Merlant nakedly embrace in Paris, 13th District.

Perhaps Audiard sees a little of himself in his commitment-phobic characters. He, too, rarely seems ready to settle down, always searching for new truths in a new genre, bounding from prison drama (A Prophet) to recovery fable (Rust and Bone) to immigrant saga (Dheepan) to Western hangout movie (The Sisters Brothers). You can admire his creative restlessness without loving everywhere it leads him. He’s landed this time on a love triangle more banal than stirring, and a sex-life mosaic more melodramatic than the tales Tomine told across a series of panels. (At the risk of getting too hung up on where screenplay deviates from comic, it’s worth noting that the original ending for Nora and Amber Sweet was much more affecting in its low-key uneventfulness than this sentimental rewrite.)

Paris, 13th District - Official Trailer | HD | IFC Films

Audiard has cited fellow Frenchman Éric Rohmer as an influence, as any contemporary filmmaker interested in the amorous and talkative must. But Paris, 13th District speaks a more general dialect of libidinous confusion, landing on a long continuum of stories — Gallic and otherwise — about fooling around in the big city. You might think of André Téchiné one minute, the Manhattan of Woody Allen’s Manhattan the next. Just as all big cities can look the same in the right light, movies about the misadventures of screwing, gabbing city-dwellers tend to blur into an indistinct whole, a primal scream of hot and bothered youth.

Paris, 13th District opens in select theaters and is available to rent On Demand starting Friday, April 15. For more reviews and writing by A.A. Dowd, visit his Authory page.

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