The eclectic veteran French director Jacques Audiard shifts gears yet again (his last feature was 2018’s unusual western, The Sisters Brothers) with Paris, 13th District (Les Olympiades), an adaptation of stories by the American comic book writer and artist Adrian Tomine. It’s an oddly segmented affair that involves a great deal of sex — quite a bit of it thwarted or in other ways less than satisfactory, at least where the women are concerned — is shot predominantly in black-and-white and seems more like tasty samplings from a smorgasbord rather than a full meal.
It’s hard to think of another film that has this much sex in it but so often leaves the participants in a grumpy mood. It happens at the outset with Emilie (Lucie Zhang) and Camille (Makia Samba), the latter a Black high school teacher who rents an apartment from the young Taiwanese woman and almost immediately after hooking up with her wants to stop having sex with her. It’s a bit awkward, but Emilie doesn’t communicate very well and her general negativity is an understandable turn-off.
Then there’s Nora (Noémie Merlant), a 32-year-old neurotic from Bordeaux who, to attend a rave party, turns up in a blonde wig and mini-skirt but then abruptly leaves after being insulted by a man in the bathroom. She later gets it on with the quite busy Camille, but that doesn’t go so well either, all of which eventually leads Nora to build a relationship with an exotic online therapist.
The acting and filmmaking are of a quality that keeps things afloat, and the script by Audiard, Lea Mysius and Celinne Sciamma, the latter the celebrated creator of Tomboy, Girlhood, Petite Maman and Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, supplies plenty of frank talk about sex. But since so much of the sex looks to have been unfulfilling and/or loaded with expectations that rarely get met, there’s something missing here in the form of a discussion about the void, the lack of substance or blockage when it comes to intimate relations. There may be hook-ups galore, but no one here comes close to entering the territory where things like real love, meaningful sex and commitment are felt.
At the same time, this is not a study of cultural ennui. Everyone’s into real stuff like working and achieving a certain level of satisfaction, and all are free to pursue their interests and make money; times have been worse. But no one seems passionate about either what they do or what they aspire to become; because of the quickness of life and the general availability of immediate satisfaction, be it from sex or drugs or money, loftier or more noble aims have rather fallen to the side.
This is not a despairing work, just a concerning one when it comes to things like modern aspirations, mutual fulfillment and attention spans. As pictured here, the current generation has trouble seeing the forest the trees — and may well be stuck in them.
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