It’s a combination to tantalise your cinematic tastebuds. Jacques Audiard, director of A Prophet, Rust And Bone and, more recently, The Sisters Brothers. And Celine Sciamma, the driving force behind Portrait Of A Lady On Fire and one of last year’s finest films – if not the finest – Petite Maman. For Paris, 13th District, and with Audiard in the director’s chair, they’re sharing writing duties with Lea Mysius and Nicolas Livecchi. That doesn’t dampen your expectations. Nor should it.
The 13th district of the title is nothing like the romantic image of the French capital. A faceless, anonymous mass of concrete tower blocks with a cathedral dome rising incongruously out of its centre, its some180,000 inhabitants live cheek by jowl in their respective little boxes. Real human connection is hard to come by and for the many 20-somethings that call it home, it’s even harder to distinguish between physical intimacy and a real relationship. It’s the dilemma facing the trio at the centre of the story, which is based on several short stories from Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel, Killing And Dying. Emilie (Lucie Zhang) falls in love with her new flat mate Camille (Makita Samba) but, as he’s not looking for commitment, things turn frazzled and sour and he moves out. He advertises for a negotiator at the estate agency he’s running and employs former mature student Nora (Noemie Merlant), who transforms the business and makes him re-think his attitudes towards love. But Emilie is still in his life and Nora has a secret which makes her reluctant to take things further.
As the lives of the three intersect – more often than they realise, with Camille and Nora passing each other on the street at least once before actually meeting – a fourth person hovers in the background, hosting her own adult chatroom and using the name of Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth). Emilie and Camille come into each other’s lives conventionally and so do he and Nora, surprising in a world where technology is the preferred method for meeting new people. It’s only Amber and Nora who come together online and, ironically, seem to know instinctively what makes a genuine connection. Their overlapping stories reflect differing attitudes to identity, fidelity and sexuality and how they can shift, sometimes in as little as a heartbeat.
The soft focus, often sultry black and white cinematography – the only glimpse of colour comes in Amber’s chatroom – creates a moodiness to complement the characters, instead of mimicking the landscape with its hard lines and sharp angles, a place that provides functional living spaces rather than homes. In that setting, Merlant – also in Portrait Of A Lady Of A Lady On Fire – simply glows on screen. Her Nora is vulnerable, near-destroyed by an experience as a student but discovers a strong sense of herself, one that gives her courage and confidence. Of the main characters, she’s the most sympathetic: amongst the concealed emotions and those on show, she finds the closest to good old fashioned romance.
Audiard keeps the pace brisk as he navigates his way through the lives on screen and, while the film never outstays its welcome, it’s only Nora that comes close to winning our hearts. Despite solid performances, Zhang’s Emilie and Samba’s Camille keep us – and each other – at arm’s length and there are times when this spills over into the film as a whole. Yet there is heart and humanity underneath, and it’s worth seeking out.
Drama | Cert: 18 | Curzon | UK cinemas and Curzon Home Cinema on 18 March | Dir. Jacques Audiard | Lucie Zhang, Makita Samba, Noemie Merlant, Jehnny Beth.