Young adults have sex. They like doing it and it’s a substantial part of their lives; one that breeds complicated emotional and social dynamics. Unfortunately, when that’s explored here in America, the actual sex is non-existent –undercut with a joke about how awkward it can be or an immediate jump to post-coital conversation where everyone unrealistically has their bits covered up. It’s a fear of portraying the sexual intimacy that takes place between people –seemingly uncomfortable with the uncomfortable. There is even a puritanical contingent that exists on social media who question the need for sex in film. They argue sex and nudity serves a merely salacious purpose; that it contributes nothing to the narrative or text of a movie. This a ridiculous argument as some of the most important parts of our character are exposed when we are at our most vulnerable.
In this day and age, we have to look past our borders for this kind of intimate representation and it’s no surprise that the French are the ones that bring us Paris 13th District. It’s decidedly a story of modern romance complete with dating apps, cam girls and social media scandal.
The screenplay, co-written by director Jacques Audiard, Léa Mysius and Portrait of a Lady on Fire auteur Céline Sciamma, is based on the short stories of graphic novelist Adrian Tomine. Tomine’s work often focuses on the paradoxical solitude of urban life; single people floating in the orbit of a city whose gravitational pull chaotically brings them together. They are the types of random interactions that create discord, longing and purpose that you’d find in Wong Kar-Wai’s films. Audiard said he was drawn to “how they consider each human being to be a small unfathomable abyss.”
We meet Emilie (Lucie Zhang) with her hedonism in full display: writhing around naked on her couch doing karaoke, the denouement of her day spent selling mobile data plans over the phone. Her ad for a roommate is answered by Camille (Makita Samba), a tall, handsome teacher who’s starting at a new school a few blocks away. Emilie’s initial hesitation of living with a man dissipates fairly quickly once she realizes she wants to have sex with him and then does.
Like many a sex-having-roommates relationship, trouble comes when they realize their desires supersede their rationale. Emilie becomes attached to Camille, who sees the relationship as purely sexual. She acts out like a spoiled child when Camille wants to work instead of fool around and throws a tantrum when Camille begins a relationship with another woman. Emilie’s insolent behavior forces Camille to move out.
The story leaves Emilie and Camille for a bit to introduce Nora (Noémie Merlant), a guileless country girl from Bordeaux who struggles to fit into her big city university. It’s when she dons a wig and makeup at a spring break party that she lets loose and feels a sense of belonging. The problem is that her new look bears a resemblance to a popular cam girl named Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth), who was hired to send a raunchy video to one of her classmates for his birthday. Nora becomes sickened when her innocent dalliance with a new persona becomes an incontrollable case of mistaken identity gone viral.
The two storylines collide when Camille begins working with Nora at a real estate agency. Nora leads Camille through the world of real estate and, of course, they embark through another social minefield, a workplace romance. Their relationship is strikingly different than that of Emilie and Camille’s. Nora is reticent and uncomfortable with sex, initially telling Camille she wants to keep their relationship professional. The first time they hook up, she tells Camille she doesn’t want to have sex. She progressively opens up but retains a sense of unease.
Audiard uses the film’s sex scenes to illustrate each character’s personality and convey their relationships to one another. His use of intimacy in this manner is cinematic, it’s show-not-tell. The ways in which they interact with each other sexually reflects the core of their emotional connections; their relationship laid bare.
Nora is uncomfortable in her own skin. From the way she timidly approaches her classmates to the way she approaches sex with Camille in a perfunctory manner. Their sex is what she feels she should have rather than what she wants to have. Nora needs to find something she didn’t know she needed before she can enjoy herself.
Emilie’s life seems to have one burning question: how can I pass the time with the least effort but also have fun? We see this in the way she casually initiates sex with the closest partner she can find. When she is rebuked, it bruises her ego. Camille possesses his own flavor of egocentrism, one that believes brutal honesty is the best policy without regard for another’s feelings. He’s down to clown, as long as it’s on his schedule and at his leisure. Sex is the heart of their relationship that expresses itself through the passion shared in the act or acrimony that results in its absence.
Still untangling her embarrassing academic exodus, and driven by a more inscrutable urge, Nora decides to confront her sex-worker doppelganger. Looking for solace, she pays for a private show and shares her experience to an apprehensive Amber. Amber grows fond of Nora’s earnestness and the two begin to bond over video chats. Emilie then re-enters the picture when she comes to help Nora and Camille with a prospective client to complicate their relationship and a classic love triangle ensues.
Audiard manages to take the disconnected urban lifestyle of young adults and present a more faithful rendition than we’ve come to expect. He reminds us that sex is not just sexy but also an effective cinematic tool.Watch Paris, 13th District