Paris, 13th District (Les Olympiades) is about sex. There’s a lot of it, and it’s hot, significant and the engine that drives the story. But the movie—directed by Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Rust and Bone) and written by Audiard, Léa Mysius and Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), based on stories by the graphic novelist and cartoonist, Adrian Tomine—is also, and more importantly, about connection.
It all begins with Camille (Makita Samba) and Émilie (Lucie Zhang). Camille, a teacher who’s also working toward his doctorate, turns up at Émilie’s door, hoping to rent her extra room. She lives in her grandmother’s apartment in Les Olympiades, the famous residential towers at the heart of the largely Asian 13th arrondissement, her grandmother having moved to an assisted living facility. When Camille shows up, Émilie is confused. His name being Camille, she’d expected a girl. She doesn’t want to live with a guy. But the sparks between them crackle, and she invites him in and they laugh and share slices of their lives with each other, and soon enough they’re having sex. Seriously bangin’ sex.
To Émilie—and to the audience—what they share feels meaningful. We can almost imagine thought bubbles floating over the scene announcing romantic clichés in action: Fate. Soul mates. Meant to be. CUT TO: wedding bells, baby feet, Camille and Émilie telling their kids for the thousandth time the kooky, serendipitous story of how they met. But Camille isn’t falling for it. He isn’t in love, or so he claims, some days or weeks later. The sex was, like, totally fun, but it was just sex. An astute viewer might assume this is his MO, a knee-jerk dive into old patterns, running from a relationship that might actually last.
Enter Nora (Noémie Merlant of Portrait of a Lady on Fire), new to Paris, fleeing her own unhealthy patterns back home to give law school a try at 33. Sex gets in her way, too. An asshole at a bar mistakes her for Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth), a sort of virtual prostitute whom Nora looks a lot like when she puts on a blond wig. Thanks to the wonders of selfies and social media and shares that spread like wildfire, Nora’s life implodes. Then she meets Camille, who’s all too happy to heal this wounded beauty with his love, his big heart and—eventually, gingerly—with sex.
Nora is broken. Émilie is searching—also empowered, driven, electrified by sex and her own big, bold sexuality. There’s a moment when she asks a co-worker to cover for her and races to her apartment for a quickie with a stranger and afterwards leaps and dances, in graceful slow-mo, through the restaurant where she waits tables, enchanting everyone in the room, inspiring wonderment and applause. You can imagine these random diners all rushing into bed with their dates later that night, inspired by Emilie’s carnal freedom and glow. Does the scene even happen, or is it some kind of vision, a poetic reflection of Émilie’s inner life and the happiness she dares seize for herself?
Of the three central characters, Camille is the one who initially seems to have his shit together—until he doesn’t. Then what? He seems to think Nora can save him, but she’s busy saving herself. Watching these deep, soulful residents of the bustling high-rises of Paris, 13e float, dive, hedge, and writhe in and out of each other’s lives, seeking sex, alternately longing for and fleeing from connection, is like magic. It jarred me, soothed me, and made me laugh. It pulled me in and I wanted it to keep me. I wished it was a series, so I could keep watching. The movie had me at “bonjour” with its gorgeous black and white visuals; its fresh, surprising dialogue, character quirks, plot twists; its smart use of phones, apps and computer screens to pull people apart and together; and its beautifully layered performances.
Ultimately, the film is a meditation on sex and connection in a world where technology erects walls between us that are almost as tall as our own fears and defenses, and it dazzled me.
Paris, 13th District opens in theaters and on demand April 15.
Andrea Meyer has written creative treatments for commercial directors, a sex and the movies column for IFC, and a horror movie script for MGM. Her first novel, Room for Love (St. Martin’s Press) is a romantic comedy based on an article she wrote for the New York Post, for which she pretended to look for a roommate as a ploy to meet men. A long-time film and entertainment journalist and former indieWIRE editor, Andrea has interviewed more actors and directors than she can remember. Her articles and essays have appeared in such publications as Elle, Glamour, Variety, Interview and the Boston Globe.