Review: ‘Paris, 13th District,’ starring Lucie Zhang, Makita Samba, Noémie Merlant and Jehnny Beth

May 10, 2022

by Carla Hay

Lucie Zhang, Noémie Merlant and Makita Samba in “Paris, 13th District” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Paris, 13th District”

Directed by Jacques Audiard 

French and Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Paris, the dramatic film “Paris, 13th District” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Four people, who are in their 30s and live in Paris, have lives that intersect as friends and as lovers.

Culture Audience: “Paris, 13th District” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies about adults navigating complicated relationships.

Noémie Merlant in “Paris, 13th District” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

The erotic-infused romantic drama “Paris, 13th District” uses a familiar formula of showing casual sex turning into love. The movie’s compelling performances and a few plot twists enliven a story that wants to be edgy yet sentimental. It’s yet another “singles who date” movie about two people in a “friends with benefits” relationship; one of them falls in love first with the other one; and both of them try to figure out what to do about it.

Adding to the complications in “Paris, 13th District” are the sexual and romantic entanglements of two other people whose lives are interconnected in some way to the would-be couple. The movie becomes like maze within a love quadrangle. And it’s a maze where some people might get lost and drift apart, while others find a way to each other. The “Paris, 13th District” director Jacques Audiard, Léa Mysius and Céline Sciamma co-wrote the movie’s adapted screenplay from short stories by Adrian Tomine.

“Paris, 13th District” (which is named for the location where most of the movie takes place) is a film in black and white, which instantly gives it a classic and somewhat artsy look. “Paris, 13th District” is not “color blind” when it comes to its casting and storylines, because racial issues are definitely not ignored in this movie, where most of the sex partners are interracial couples. Immigrant identities are also not erased for characters who come from immigrant families.

With that being said, even though “Paris, 13th District” tries to look like it’s completely progressive and modern, the movie still falls into some stereotypical and old-fashioned formulas in movies about casual sex turning into love. One of the biggest stereotypes is the emotionally unattainable ladies’ man, who tells his sexual conquests up front that he doesn’t want to be in a monogamous and committed relationship, but one of his sex partners tries to change his mind anyway. Some people might like think that “Paris, 13th District” (especially the ending) plays it too safe, while other people might think the movie is too vulgar.

The four people who are part of the movie’s “love quadrangle” are all in their 30s, and they are feeling discontent about various aspects of their lives.

  • Émilie Wong (played by Lucie Zhang) is a talkative free spirit, who comes from a Chinese immigrant family, where she is considered an underachiever. Émilie has a science degree but works as a telemarketer selling cell phone services. Émilie works in a call center, where she sometimes breaks the rules when she thinks she can get away with it. Émilie (who identifies as bisexual or queer) lives rent-free in an apartment owned by her grandmother. In contrast to Émilie’s aimless life, Émilie’s older sister is a successful medical doctor named Karin (played by Geneviève Doang), who often scolds Émilie for being immature and self-centered.
  • Camille Germain (played by Makita Samba), the movie’s Lothario, is a high school teacher who quits that job to pursue getting his Ph.D. in modern literature. At one point in the story, Camille starts working at a real estate agency to earn more money. Camille has a fairly good relationship with his immediate family: Camille’s widower father (played by Pol White) and Camille’s 16-year-old sister (played by Camille Léon-Fucien), who wants to be a stand-up comedian. However, Camille doesn’t visit them as much as they would like because he seems to want to avoid being reminded that his beloved mother is no longer with them.
  • Nora Ligier (played by Noémie Merlant) is a loner with a vague background. She’s originally from Bordeaux, France. In the beginning of the movie, Nora has enrolled in a criminal law class because her dream is to eventually become a lawyer. However, Nora ends up working as an agent for a real estate company, which is how she meets Camille. Nora also goes through some harrowing experiences because she’s often mistaken for a porn actress who uses the alias Amber Sweet.
  • Amber Sweet (played by Jehnny Beth), who wears a blonde wig styled in a shoulder-length bob, looks so similar to Nora, they could pass for fraternal twins. Amber is the most mysterious person of these four characters. However, she eventually opens up and becomes close to someone in this group of four people. It’s not really surprising who ends up befriending Amber, but some things that led up to that relationship are not as predictable.

In the beginning of “Paris, 13th District,” Émilie meets Camille for the first time, because he has answered an ad that she placed to look for a roommate. When he shows up at her door, she’s surprised that Camille is a man, because she assumed from his name that Camille was a woman. Even though Émilie lives rent-free in her apartment, she has a secret scam going on where she gets a roommate to give her the roommate’s share of the rent, and she keeps the money. The movie shows whether or not Camille finds out about this con game.

In their first conversation, Émilie and Camille (who seem to be instantly attracted to each other) don’t waste time getting personal and talking about sex after some small talk about what they do for a living. Émilie asks Camille to describe his love life. He replies, “My parents aren’t laughing.” Then, he adds, “I channel professional frustration into intense sexual activity. Nothing noisy or invasive for a roommate.”

When Camille asks Émilie about her love life, she sums it up this way: “Fuck first. See later.” Émilie also shows that she’s insecure about her physical appearance. Even though Émilie is already thin, she mentions that she likes to put Saran wrap around her body to “get thin.”

For Émilie, it’s an easy decision for Camille to move in with her. And they soon start having casual sex with each other. After just a week of these sexual hookups, Émilie grows very emotionally attached to Camille and shows signs that she’s falling in love with him. It makes him uncomfortable, so he tells Émilie that he doesn’t want to have sex with her on a regular basis anymore. “We have fun, but we’re not a couple,” Camille tells Émilie.

Émilie feels hurt and offended, but she tries to hide it by becoming standoffish to him. She tells Camille: “We need new rules. We share cleaning and food. And stop walking around naked.” As much as Émilie wants to pretend that she can handle these new boundaries, she becomes increasingly crabby and difficult. Camille starts casually dating a woman he works with named Stéphanie (played by Oceane Cairaty), who spends the night sometimes at the apartment. Predictably, Émilie gets jealous.

Émilie’s moodiness becomes too much for Camille, who eventually moves out of the apartment. But that doesn’t mean that he’s completely out of Émilie’s life. Camille and Nora end up working together. And because Camille is a ladies’ man, it’s not surprising what happens between him and Nora. Émilie (who eventually meets Nora) tries to move on from Camille by dating other people, but her mind is never far from thinking about Camille.

Meanwhile, Nora’s life collides with Amber’s when Nora goes to a nightclub wearing the same type of blonde wig that Amber wears in Amber’s porn videos. At the nightclub, several men start approaching Nora and treating her like a celebrity, by asking to take photos with her and being extra flirtatious with her. Nora is confused but flattered by this attention.

Nora later finds out why all these strangers acted as if she’s famous: Nora looks a lot like Amber Sweet when she wears the blonde wig. Nora has never heard of Amber Sweet until discovering that she’s an Amber Sweet look-alike, but she finds out the hard way that being mistaken for a porn star definitely has its down sides. Over time, Nora gets unwelcome and abusive attention when people think that she is Amber Sweet. It’s also eventually revealed that Nora and Amber both identify as queer or bisexual women.

One of the best things about “Paris, 13th District” is that the movie authentically shows how flaky, confused and desperate people can get when it comes to finding love and sex. The four central people in this story have a certain restless defiance that can come from people in their 30s who are still figuring out what they want to do with their lives, while other people in their age group are settling down with marriages, kids and careers. Émilie, Camille, Nora and Amber are not pressuring themselves to conform to society’s expectations, but they are putting certain pressures on themselves to find happiness wherever and whenever they can.

Émilie could have easily been written as a perfectly lovable ingenue to make it easier for audiences to root for her. But she’s often irritable, narcissistic and impatient, in addition to being someone who is capable of giving and receiving real love. She likes to think she’s independent, but she has the emotional maturity of a childlike woman who is very dependent on her family for financial support and approval. Émilie is a flawed but very believable character.

Zhang performs well in this role, while Samba’s performance as commitment-phobic Camille is also realistic. The roles of Émilie and Camille have better character development than the roles of Nora and Amber. Nora and Amber both have an intertwined storyline that seems a little too convenient and rushed into the plot toward the last third of the movie. Viewers never get to see any of Nora’s and Amber’s family members (it’s implied that Nora and Amber are estranged from their families), whereas Émilie’s and Camille’s family members are in the movie as integral to understanding Émilie’s and Camille’s personalities.

“Paris, 13th District” has some sex scenes that some viewers might think are a little risqué, but the movie doesn’t take many risks when it comes to a tired, over-used stereotype in movies about single people who are dating: A woman is always trying to get a man to commit to her. “Paris, 13th District” sacrifices aspects of Émilie’s free-spirited personality to make her sometimes look like a clingy shrew.

However, “Paris, 13th District” also makes a point of showing that many people are often full of contradictions. It’s a movie about people who appreciate and pursue the pleasures of sex, but they also use sex as a way to cover up a lot of emotional pain. And no matter what people’s attitudes are about sex, “Paris, 13th District” is essentially a movie that acknowledges that everyone wants to be loved in some way or another.

IFC Films released “Paris, 13th District” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on April 15, 2022. The movie was released in France in 2021.

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