#LFF 2021: Paris, 13th District review


Mid-way through Jacques Audiard’s criss-crossing critique of modern city life in Paris, 13th District, Émilie (Lucie Zhang) – out of work and in need of cash – is showing a prospective tenant around the apartment in which she lives. Part of the deal for this unsuspecting newcomer is that she will need to visit Émilie’s sick grandmother in a nearby nursing home each week as the spoilt, troubled, directionless young woman can no longer bear to do so. Or simply doesn’t care enough to do so.

Add to this the fact that she has long been living rent-free in the flat, belonging to said ailing grandmother, and you have some idea as to the bitterness, the nastiness, the callousness with which people treat each other in the French auteur’s latest film. In and of itself that is not a gripe, by any means, but that coldness permeates the screen, too, meaning that anything more than passing emotional engagement is a real challenge. The script, written by Céline Sciamma, explores the difficulties of forging, and maintaining, lasting relationships in Paris, or indeed any large cosmopolitan city. How we live through screens, chat rooms, dating apps and forget what it is to make organic human connections.

Told in a loose beginning, middle and end, Paris, 13th District revolves principally between the film’s three central characters: Émilie, Camille (Makita Samba) and Nora (Noémie Merlant). French-Taiwanese, with an older sister and her mum in London, Émilie’s inability – or rather refusal – to care for her elderly relative is perhaps a defence mechanism, the why of which is never explored. Is it better to ignore the potential hurt or heartache rather than experience it? Better to be alone, and lonely, than risk making ties that cannot be cut? The same applies to her brief fling with brief housemate, Camille.

Lightning strikes as soon as the tall, handsome, deep-thinking stranger arrives and moves in to the spare room. But a hand not held and a brush of the shoulder leaves Émilie bereft. Caught in flux between wanting companionship – whether platonic or physical – and fearing commitment, for reasons only infrequently alluded to or developed, it is suggested that the recent loss of his own mother, and a change of his professional circumstances, lie behind Camille’s aloof nature. Scenes with his sister, Eponine (Camille Léon-Fucien) and father (Pol White) are disappointingly few and far between as we only scratch the surface of this side story. Having moved to Paris from Bordeaux to study law, Nora’s early optimism and enthusiasm is soon dashed by a case of mistaken identity and suffering cruel, humiliating abuse from her peers.

Solace will come from an unlikely source, a figure first seen in the monochrome film’s only splash of colour – an odd, jarring decision – but as Paris, 13th District moves towards a conclusion or sorts we care little for the outcome. Voids may latterly be filled, but the transient nature of these overlapping friendships and love affairs, where characters push and pull, attract and repel, make love or hate is so fleeting that unfortunately the film itself falls flat. It should be said that this is in no way caused by a lack of commitment or quality of performance by the central actors or the film’s beautiful aesthetic. However, for all its stylistic prowess – and a tremendous score by French artist Rone – Paris, 13th District feels empty and soulless. A rare misfire for one of France’s greatest living directors.

Visit the BFI London Film Festival page to delve deeper into the wealth of films on show this year.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63