They label the neighborhoods of Paris “arrondissements,” which translates as bureaucratic “districts” but in French sounds ever-so-sexy. Whatever one thinks of Notting Hill, Hyde Park, Buckhead, Park Slope or Silverlake, the allure of romance in this or that arrondissement checkmates those pieces of geography with just word and a roman numeral.
“Paris, 13th District,” titled “Les Olympiades, Paris 13e” in French, is an erotic romance from Jacques Audiard, of “Rust and Bone,” “The Sisters Brothers” and “A Prophet.” Because nobody puts this French baby in a corner, or cinematic pigeon-hole. Based on the short stories of Adrian Tomine, it’s a loosely connected love triangle of people — native French, Taiwanese-French and African-French — hooking up, connecting and disconnecting in the XIIIe arrondissement of the world’s most romantic city.
Uneven, mostly unified by erotically-charged sex scenes, a dreamy score by Rone and the sumptuous black and white cinematography of Paul Guilhaume, “Paris” very much wears its “short stories” origin in the telling. But the filmmaker, three co-screenwriters and Tomine tie them together for a story of love in the age of sex, Tinder, “hook-ups” and all the things in modern life that disconnect the two.
Emilie, played by newcomer Lucie Zhany, is a call center operator used to playing a part. As Maryline Dumot, the 20something Taiwanese-French pixie is certain of her salesmanship, and her sexual allure.
“I’m irresistible,” she tells new roommate/lover Camille (Makita Samba). And so she has proven. Camille may bear the name of a famous French courtesan of literature, but he is not just a man of letters — he’s a teacher of French planning to pursue a doctorate. He has appetites.
Emilie was looking for “a girl” roommate, but when the guy with the “girl’s name” shows up, she rolls with it. In an instant she’s hitting him with “What is your love life like?” queries, and he is batting the ball back across the net in ways that ensure they end up ruffling the sheets.
She is brusque, direct and someone who knows what she likes sexually. As their “roommate” arrangement instantly transforms to something coital, she rebuffs him with a “You’re falling in love with me (in French, with English subtitles).” He’s quick with an “I’ll watch out,” but she is serious.
And it turns out, when he reestablishes his distance, she’s the one who turns jealous, snippy and “obnoxious.” Camille moves out and moves in with a sexy teacher (Oceane Cairaty) he’s had the temerity to “bring home” with him. Poor Emilie!
Nora (Noémie Merlant) is a sex worker from Bordeaux. Her performances online as “Amber Sweet” were a side hustle. But at 33, after ten years at her uncle’s real estate firm, she’s in Paris to study law.
Her classmates are at first dismissive of this “old” lady. But some recognize her. She sees to that when she dons Amber’s tartwear and blonde wig for a campus spring break party. Her recognizing “admirers” lead to ridicule.
Shamed and rattled, she returns to real estate work, where shockingly she winds up working with Camille. Even not knowing her past, he is fated to figure out if her sex appeal was strictly an online thing, or if his beautiful colleague is an uninhibited as her alter ego.
And what’s she spending her commissions on? She’s dropped back online, to the old site where she used to perform. She’s paying good money to chat up a near doppelganger, the “new” Amber (Jehnny Beth), a woman she reveals her secrets to, and who reveals her secrets to Nora…for a fee.
No one comes off as particularly “happy” in these interconnected stories. Camille, being literary, insists that the heat of “first attraction” fades, which is why he’s quick to tell Emilie, at least (among his conquests) that “I don’t want to be a couple with anyone.” But life with his books by Rousseau seems empty, even if childish Emilie’s “rules” for their relationship incompetently confining.
“I pay to live with you and bear you” may be the best kiss-off (Camille to Emilie) you never thought of.
Nora is the “every sex worker has a story” trope modernized for the Internet hook-up age. She, like Emilie, has had something that “stunted” her growth emotionally. Unlike Emilie, Nora has a true confessor, somebody she will bare her soul to — for a fee.
Aside from visits to his newly-widowed father and aspiring stand-up sister, Camille is the least-developed character here. We’re never sure what drives him, other than the standard “men catting around” cliche.
Emilie’s interior life is glimpsed only through her surgeon sister, who judges her, and little hints that she’s on-the-spectrum in terms of social signals, tact and emotional adjustment, despite intimations that she’s quite smart.
I can’t say that all of this ties up as neatly as one might like, despite the satisfying way one character comes to grips with herself and the abrupt ways others seem to manage that as well. But Audiard has conjured up a fascinating snapshot of love in the age of easy, online-assisted sex. “Paris, 13th District” feels both authentic and thanks to its dreamy setting, as romantic as only affairs in the City of Love can be, whether they involve courtesans or college students.
Rating: R for strong sexual content throughout, graphic nudity, language and some drug use
Cast: Lucie Zhany, Makita Samba, Noémie Merlant and Jehnny Beth
Credits: Directed by Jacques Audiard, scripted by Jacques Audiard, Nicolas Livecchi, Léa Mysius and Céline Sciamma, based on the short stories of Adrian Tomine. An IFC release.
Running time: 1:45