Jacques Audiard’s plainspoken triptych Paris, 13th District is an easily digestible portrait of the convolutions of modern-day sex, love, and new relationships.
Emilie is in love with the roommate she’s extorting, who is interested in Nora, who is involved with Amber, who she has to pay to speak with. This is the chain of emotional logic that organizes Jacques Audiard’s film Paris, 13th District (Les Olympiades), a seriocomic portrait of modern romance whose storytelling complications understand the beguiling nature of new relationships and fraught class relations.
Adapting three narratives from Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel “Killing and Dying”, Audiard (with cowriters Lea Mysius and Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s Céline Sciamma) smartly keeps the majority focus on characterization, collapsing the individual stories into a larger, connected narrative. This approach generally works well, as de facto protagonist Camille (Makita Samba) bridges multiple stories, his own philandering approach to life naturally drawing others into his orbit. Plotting tends to emerge strictly from character; one plotline involving a case of mistaken identity is quickly sidestepped for a relationship to develop. This keeps the kaleidoscopic structure from feeling too clever or unnatural; tone is everything here and it is very relaxed, allowing individual relationships their due while drawing them into a larger series of thematic connections.
Unfortunately, Audiard’s black and white cinematography (dipping into color only once) is not particularly accomplished, and certain small flourishes grate against his vocabulary of stronger classical technique. The lighting setups remain strong and dynamic, and the tendency towards medium shots and blocked scenes allow for many points of contrast and depth in any given moment. The worst tics have to do with the camera itself, especially in the use of rudderless verité handheld, odd but infrequent slow motion, and a few ugly splitscreens.
Rather than any formal marvel, the film lives and dies by the script, and, while the character-driven storytelling is strong, much of what exists outside of a few central relationships feels either shorthanded or downright cliché. An interaction between one protagonist and her mean classmates particularly grates, as Audiard fills the frame with faceless backs of heads and tries stiffly to incorporate nightmare-logic stylistics only to drop the same rather quickly. Luckily the focus is firmly kept away from these brief sidebars.
Paris, 13th District opens with a look inside the many individuated windows of the 13th District, but its storytelling instincts are much more attuned to organizing its disparate threads into a whole. There is a closed off nature to the film, not a portrait of a specific place so much as a feeling shared only between its lonely, complex protagonists. The difference between these two poles- in intention and quality- are significant, but a breezy tone allows the strongest elements to outpace Audiard’s formal waffling.