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paris 13th district review
The intersecting love lives of four young Parisians.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Jacques Audiard

Starring: Lucie Zhang, Makita Samba, Jehnny Beth, Noémie Merlant

paris 13th district poster

Paris, 13th District produces, for better and worse, exactly the set of results you might imagine from a collaboration between an aging veteran male director and a pair of hip young women filmmakers. Jacques Audiard - known for his gritty, usually male-centred films like A Prophet, The Beat That My Heart Skipped and The Sisters Brothers – has teamed up with two of France's most revered young female talents in Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) and Léa Mysius (Ava). Together as screenwriters, with Audiard directing, they've adapted three stories from American graphic novelist Adrian Tomine.

paris 13th district review

The stories are relocated to the French capital's 13th arrondissement, a trendy area largely populated by immigrants from France's East Asian colonies. It's there we find the film's quartet of central players, all unsure whether they're actively looking for love or trying to avoid such hassle. Emilie (Lucie Zhang) lives in the apartment vacated by her Chinese grandmother, now confined to a rest home, while working at a call centre job her sarcastic temperament is ill-suited to. When she advertises for a tenant to rent the flat's spare room, the listing is answered by handsome teacher Camille (Makita Samba). Before a lease is agreed, the landlady and prospective renter are getting hot and sweaty, which continues when Camille moves in. The pair agree that's it's a no-strings arrangement, but Emilie secretly wants more from their relationship, which drives a wedge between the flatmates.

Elsewhere in the district, thirtysomething mature student Nora moves into a new apartment. When she's mistaken for cam-girl Amber Sweet (singer Jehnny Beth), she finds herself the subject of scandal at her law school, with fellow students sharing explicit videos of the woman they wrongly believe to be their classmate. Intrigued by how she might have been confused for this woman, Nora tracks down Amber online and finds herself drawn towards her charms.

paris 13th district review

For an English language equivalent of the contradictory tone struck by the Audiard-Sciamma-Mysius axis here, imagine Woody Allen working alongside Phoebe Waller-Bridge. The millennial protagonists come off as largely convincing, but there are instances where the film seems completely out of touch with the attitudes of today's younger generations. The sub-plot of Nora's disgrace at school is particularly difficult to swallow. Would a school full of Gen-Zers react with such mockery at learning a fellow student was an online sex-worker? Maybe I'm wrong, but it seems the sort of thing that would only improve Nora's street cred among her young classmates. This is 2021 Paris after all, not 1956 Alabama.

If details like that seem to miss the mark, such cracks are papered over to a considerable degree by the strength of the performances here. Merlant continues her rise in Gallic cinema with another of her trademark turns as a woman trying to keep her emotions in check. Newcomer Zhang is the real trump card here, delivering a comic performance par excellence. She deftly portrays Emilie as a mix of streetwise front and schoolgirl vulnerability, and she has everything you could want in the heroine of an off-kilter rom-com. The film never quite matches her strengths, but I suspect this is a young star we'll be seeing a lot more of in the coming years.

paris 13th district review

If Audiard occasionally fluffs his lines in a genre he seems ill-suited to here, visually he certainly keeps things interesting. With its bland and brutal architecture, the titular setting is an unconventional one for a romantic comedy, but Audiard and cinematographer Paul Guilhaume manage to find a beauty in the straight lines and sharp edges of the sort of tower blocks usually coded as dangerous in French cinema. Shot in monochrome, it's a black and white movie whose protagonists find romance refuses to conform to such binary simplicity.

Paris, 13th District
 is on MUBI UK now.