Girl meets boy. Boy meets another girl. That girl meets yet another girl. That quartet is what forms the basis of French director Jacques Audiard’s latest film, Paris, 13th District. Based on the short stories of cartoonist Adrian Tomine and the result of a collaborative screenplay written by Audiard himself, along with fellow director Céline Sciamma, Nicolas Livecchi, and Léa Mysius, Paris, 13th District is a disjointed look at relationships and the rules of attraction in the 21st century. We’ve all seen this movie before — a girl meets a boy and quickly falls for him; he says he’s not looking for a relationship but quickly falls into one with someone else. When that relationship falters, he falls head over heels for the “unattainable” girl who entertains said boy for a little while before eventually unexpectedly falling for someone else. So what makes Audiard’s film any different from the countless other rom coms (the comedy is real lite here)? That’s a good question that I’m not sure I have the answer to — except maybe this one is a little more confounding to watch.
Shot in black and white and in a way that exudes that effortless “French cool,” Paris, 13th District opens with a silent opening panning shot giving you quick glimpses into the lives of the residents of an apartment highrise. In one of these apartments lives Émilie (Lucie Zhang), a young Chinese woman looking for a roommate to help her pay the bills. Émilie is somewhat floundering in life and living in her successful older sister’s shadow and avoiding her family when Camille (Makita Samba) shows up at her door to rent the room.
Unbeknownst to her, Camille is a man, but she lets him move in anyway. The sexual attraction is there from the jump, and a sexual relationship starts almost immediately — and we all know that this can either one of two ways, well or really, really bad and most times, it’s just messy. Camille is a teacher who seems to be more put together and mature compared to the immature and egocentric Émilie, and the attraction wears off relatively quickly for him, much to her chagrin.
Then abruptly and out of the blue, we are no longer following the lives of Émilie and Camille, but we are introduced to another young woman, Nora (Noémie Merlant). She has just moved to Paris to attend law school. Nora is slightly older than her fellow classmates and feels like a fish out of water. One day she decides to attend a Spring Break party when he is mistaken for a famous cam girl. Her classmates are relentless with their taunting, eventually leading Nora to drop out of school and go on a quest to find the cam girl Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth) and return to her previous life as a real estate agent.
And that’s where the two acts converge — Camille, disillusioned with the education system, now manages a friend’s real estate agency and hires Nora to help him turn the business around. And in true romantic drama fashion, Camille’s attraction to Nora grows. He quickly falls for the naive (or not so naive, really) girl who runs hot and cold as her online friendship with her doppelganger heats up. He rekindles his friendship with Émilie, who is still carrying the torch for him — making for quite the love triangle (or foursome, rather).
The style Audiard shoots and presents this story is really conducive to modern, 21st-century relationships amongst 20- and 30-somethings. It’s very fluid and social and blurs boundaries. But about 30 minutes into the film, it gets weird, and viewers are left questioning if the story they were watching just abruptly ended. From that point on, the film feels disjointed and just spirals out before “trying” to come full circle with the story and the characters. What makes Paris, 13th District watchable is the chemistry between the actors. Lucie Zhang, a newcomer to the acting scene, really carries this film and her performance is emotional, layered, and raw. Her chemistry with Samba is palpable, and Samba’s chemistry with the more experienced Merlant is undeniable. Jehnny Beth also delivers a strong performance making the acting in this film solid all around. But that’s not enough to save it.
In the end, Paris, 13th District feels like it was the fever dream of several different writers that was just mashed together in the end — which might work for some viewers but will leave others unimpressed.