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  • Reviewed from the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.

In the way it unifies an image by melting its contrasts into gradients of grey, black-and-white cinematography has a soft, sensual quality that is as undeniable as it is peculiar. Characters can appear bloodless and slightly artificial, the colour literally drained from their faces and their bodies reduced to plays of shadow and light. This contradiction is the dynamic – and the issue – at the heart of Jacques Audiard’s Paris, 13th District, which premiered in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

The film follows three young characters who cross paths in Paris’ 13th district, known as ‘Les Olympiades’ because its eight tallest towers are named after cities that have hosted the Olympic Games. Though it is in reality a rather peculiar place, built in the 1970s but seeming almost futuristic in its design, the neighbourhood comes across in this film as little more than the ideal blank background for a simplistic and old-fashioned vision of modern city life as something utterly anonymous and disconnected.

One of the reasons for this curious lack of a feeling for place – something usually present in Audiard’s cinema – may be the source material. The film is based on three stories by celebrated American cartoonist Adrian Tomine, assembled and transposed to France by Audiard together with screenwriters Céline Sciamma and Léa Mysius – both writers and directors who have previously demonstrated their talent for crafting touchingly human characters. Despite the Parisian district giving the film its title, the real focus here is on its three protagonists, each dealing with their own desires and demons.

(Lucie Zhang) is a French-Chinese girl working in a call centre and living rent-free in what we later learn is her grandmother’s apartment. She is brash, rude and unapologetic in everything she does, but most of all when it comes to sex. When Camille (Makita Samba), a potential roommate, comes to visit the flat, Émilie expects a woman, but he turns out to be an elegant and charming young man, and sparks fly – he gets the room.

Noémie Merlant as Nora and Makita Samba as Camille in Paris, 13th District

The two embark on a brief but intense sexual relationship that appears to have no strings attached, yet the usually cold-hearted Émilie is devastated when Camille decides it must end so he can focus on his work. The film thus blends together a refreshing sexual frankness with a heightened emotionality that lends the film a rather artificial, even old-fashioned aura. The characters wrestle with their emotions in ways that feel excessively agitated and, it must be said, distinctly un-French.

There is an odd American flavour to Audiard’s film in the rather cerebral way in which its protagonists are defined and in how they understand themselves. References to Émilie’s Chinese origins do more to signal her ethnicity to the audience than they add to her character as a human being. Close-ups on the intermingled bodies of Émilie and Camille, who is Black, appear to insist on the contrast of colours, a fascination which the characters themselves do not share. Paris, 13th District has its heart in the right place, but it comes across as a film made by older people imagining how modern young people live.

This impression is slightly less marked in the narrative strand centred on Nora (Noémie Merlant), who doesn’t approach matters of the heart with the same hyper-analytical eye as Émilie and Camille, with whom she eventually crosses paths. Nora finds herself the victim of an upsetting case of mistaken identity due to her resemblance to an online porn actress, and Merlant beautifully brings out the darkly comic quality of this offbeat story. But when the young woman’s fellow students mock her, thinking her to be the successful sex worker, the slut-shaming comes across as out-of-place conservatism.

The often slightly emphatic performances from the cast and the too-polished dialogue – which hits emotional beats and rhythms in a manner eerily familiar from American television – enhance the feeling of this being an overly scripted, almost didactic film about modern love. It’s a shame that despite a charismatic cast Audiard ultimately lets his evocative black-and-white fall on the side of artifice, to the service of an ultimately reductive vision.

Sight and Sound November 2021

50 years after its release, we reveal the untold stories behind A Clockwork Orange, as seen through the relationship between author Anthony Burgess and director Stanley Kubrick + Edgar Wright on Last Night in Soho, Jeymes Samuel on The Harder They Fall, Małgorzata Szumowska on Never Gonna Snow Again, Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground, the best of Venice and much more…

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Originally published: 14 July 2021