There are titles aplenty in the genre of French romantic dramedies about fetching young people negotiating their romantic entanglements in Paris — hell, even filtering things through tasteful black and white doesn’t narrow the field down much. Still, Paris, 13th District finds enough specificity, as well as a distinct vibe of actual sensuality, to stand out. It helps that, in an usual move, the script (from director Jacques Audiard in collaboration with Céline Sciamma and Léa Mysius) cribs from and remixes elements from several short stories by US graphic novelist Adrian Tomine. A leading figure in the early 2000s indie comics scene, Tomine’s sensibility — his stories are often grounded looks at unusual happenstance provoking adrift protagonists into venturing off their comfortable paths — provides a surprisingly good fit for a milieu very different from the one in which he usually writes.
The original French title of the film is Les Olympiades, named after the residential tower district in Paris’s 13th arrondissement, where most of the events take place. It’s here that we meet Émilie (Lucie Zhang) and Camille (Makita Samba), roommates who strike up a friends-with-benefits situationship that grows more tense the more they both steadfastly refuse to acknowledge they’ve caught feelings for each other. They eventually part ways but stay in touch, with Camille going on to date his co-worker Nora (Noémie Merlant), who’s recently been harassed out of university due to her uncanny resemblance to a popular camgirl, “Amber Sweet” (Jehnny Beth). While Émilie and Camille continue their friends-or-lovers push-pull, Nora becomes a customer of Amber, and they too develop an unusual bond.
In its examination of different ways young people find to not commit, the film draws interesting friction from the mix of points of view behind the scenes. Audiard is 69, old enough to probably not know why any young person would instinctively react with “nice” upon hearing his age. Sciamma is 43, from the younger side of Gen X. Only the 33-year-old Mysius is in roughly the same cohort as most of the cast. Yet they approach their characters with empathy, not condescension, and filtering the plotlines through Tomine’s stories — written when he was of that same age — likely helps.
The source materials in question are various shorts that Tomine wrote for his self-published anthology Optic Nerve, and it’s remarkable how smoothly the film adjusts their particulars and melds their disparate threads together. Amber Sweet provides the bulk of Nora’s storyline, though it originally revolved around an old-school porn actress rather than a camgirl, and the film also smartly incorporates the kind of social media chatter that didn’t exist at the time of the story’s publication into its portrayal of public ostracism. Parts of Killing and Dying are used to fill in a subplot featuring Camille’s father and younger sister, who is taking standup comedy classes as a way to combat her stutter. Émilie’s day job as a phone jockey and general life circumstances come from Hawaiian Getaway, and it’s impressive how seamlessly the backstory of the lead character from that comic, a descendant of Chinese immigrants, gets transplanted here. It also incorporates Zhang’s own background, as she herself was born to Chinese immigrants and grew up partly in the 13th arrondissement.
While the whole cast is excellent, Zhang in particular should be noted as a standout, one of the more exciting new finds in recent French cinema. She projects with tremendous skill overlapping senses of strong attraction and ambivalence. She doesn’t know what she wants, but also does want Camille, but can’t really say that too strongly because what if that breaks what they already have? It’s that kind of thorny interpersonal headache that Paris, 13th District pins down quite well about contemporary relationships. It’s one of the better international film surprises of the spring.
Paris, 13th District is now playing in select theaters.