Jacques Audiard’s first feature since 2018’s The Sisters Brothers sees the acclaimed French director return to his home town with a gorgeous, funny and tender romantic comedy, shot in luscious black and white. Paris, 13th District is a paean to the freedoms, the heartaches and the confusion of singledom.
In need of extra cash, Émilie (Lucie Zhang) takes on teacher Camille (Makita Samba) as a lodger in her apartment situated in the eponymous Parisian district. Young, attractive and single, it’s no surprise that they fall in to bed almost as soon as they meet, engaging in a brief, somewhat fractions no strings fling. Jealousy, however, begins to creep in when teacher Camille brings one of his colleagues home with him.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the district, 30-something Nora (Noémie Merlant) is going back to law school, full of the joys of a new spring. Her optimism is short-lived, however, when she is mistaken on a night out for cam-girl Amber Sweet (musician Jehnny Beth). Soon, the rumour spreads throughout her class and she quits school in humiliation. Eventually, the lives of Nora, Camille and Émilie collide, along with Amber Sweet, with whom Nora strikes up an unlikely online friendship.
The romantic exploits and tribulations of hip, neurotic young urbanites has a rich history in cinema; Paris, 13th District knowingly follows in the footsteps of Annie Hall, Manhattan and Frances Ha, and more recently, Louis Garrel’s A Faithful Man. Cinematographer Paul Guilhaume’s luminous black and white photography brings the city and its inhabitants to vivid, intimate life. The film’s numerous sex scenes shot in tight close ups are steamy and immediate, but its Guilhaume and Audiard’s use of exterior shots with long lenses that bring to life the film’s truly romantic moments. These scenes, particularly in the film’s latter half, bring us into Camille, Nora and Émilie’s world ironically by keeping us at a distance, as if glancing a couple in the oblivious process of falling in love, seen from across a city park or office window.
Nora’s burgeoning friendship with Amber, whom she tracks down after she is humiliated by the douchebags on her course, is surprisingly sweet and brings another dimension to the film’s already messy tangle of relationships. It’s reminiscent of a similar dynamic in Ben Hozie’s PVT Chat, but stripped of that film’s sleazy, noirish undercurrents. Instead, Paris, 13th District celebrates sex and relationship as as a constantly-unfurling ball of knots, intertwined, lumpy, impossible to make sense of, often painful and utterly, wonderfully vital.