From Á bout des souffle to Amélie, French cinema loves a good Parisian romance with the city often as integral to the love story as the love story itself. Jacques Audiard’s latest is a love story set in Paris – but that’s where the comparison to its predecessors end.
There’s no twee shots of a twinkling Eiffel Tower or panoramic views of romantic boat rides along the Seine, Emily in Paris-style here. Paris is not sentimentalised: filmed in harsh black and white, the action takes place around Paris’ 13th District – an austere concrete jungle of modern apartment blocks. Despite its title, the film centres not on the city that’s Audiard’s home, but on the complex lives of four millennials who live there, all trying to navigate love in a digital age be it via casual hook-ups, dating apps or online porn.
Take Èmilie, a sharp-tongued, sex-savvy woman in her twenties who is bored with her soul-destroying job in a call centre. With a stunning standout performance from newcomer Lucie Zhang, we follow Èmilie as she thrill-seeks via dating apps in a post lockdown world where horniness is off-the-charts. Things change when dashing male student Camille (Makita Samba) starts to rent a room in her apartment and the pair soon start sleeping together. While Èmilie falls in love, Camille wants nothing more than to be a roommate with benefits and the two go their separate ways.
While Èmilie returns to dating apps, Camille moves out and starts a new job to help fund his studies – and it’s here where he meets the vulnerable Nora (Noémie Merlant). An older student in her thirties, Nora is mistaken by her younger, bratty classmates for porn star Amber Sweet (expertly portrayed by Jehnny Beth) and is mercilessly slut-shamed. While she eventually turns to Camille for sexual solace, the pair are awkward, frigid and fail to connect. Nora instead seeks out Amber Sweet to understand the mistaken identity incident more – but the unlikely pair strike up a relationship that lies at the heart of the film.
Co-written by Audiard, Leá Mysius and Céline Sciamma, Paris, 13th District is bold in its intentions, interrogating love in the digital age. It asks questions about how much of ourselves we are prepared to give over to tech, and how that world impacts our lives in the real one, particularly if you’re a woman. Beth pulls apart gender performativity and rigid sexualities via her character (much as she does in her music) to offer an alternative vision of love that will chime both with millennials and older generations questioning what went before.
While the sex we see on screen is plentiful, it never feels gratuitous or, crucially, a result of the male gaze in a film where women are always front and centre. It’s an honest and realistic depiction of intimacy too, especially when we see the difficulties Camille and Nora have connecting in often darkly comic moments. It’s definitely the sexiest film of 2022 so far, but also the one with the most heart.
- Director: Jacques Audiard
- Starring: Noémie Merlant, Jehnny Beth, Lucie Zhang
- Release date: March 18