VIFF ’21 Review: ‘Paris, 13th District’ is a gorgeous, if slightly thin, look at how we deal with trauma

The first thing you will notice is the cinematography. Shot in elegant black and white, the camera in Paris, 13th District (Les Olympiades, en Francais) is a character unto itself, peering into the windows and lives of the residential towers of the district before settling on three to follow. The camera then follows them, like a close friend, and while the resulting film is lightly paced and slight with the details, it never doesn’t feel intimate and empathetic.

The three characters we follow in Paris, 13th District are Émilie (Lucie Zhang), a college grad working a dead-end job, Camille (Makita Samba), a teacher who is pausing his career to work on his doctorate, and Nora (Noémie Merlant), a woman who moved to Paris to finally go back to university after being waylaid by family complications.

Each of them ends up connected to the others through their neighbourhood, first with Camille showing up to rent a room from Émilie (who was expecting a girl, based on his name). Then Nora with Camille when he hires her as a sales agent at the real estate office he began working at to cover his bills.

Each of them has trauma in their past and present that they are struggling to overcome. Very little of their backstories are made explicit; instead, the film drops us into the middle of their lives, and we are to pick up what we can from their interactions. What we learn varies, with Camille’s story being the least explored of the three and Nora’s perhaps the most, but all of them are compelling, and each of them is relatable. Each of them gets a happy ending (with Nora’s being my favourite), though, and a hopeful place for their imagined stories to continue from.

While everyone is good, Noémie Merlant proves that she’s one of the best actors we have working today for the third year in a row. Nora’s arc has her go from naive and socially stunted to liberated and fully realized, and she conveys all of the emotional twists and turns the story demands of her with grace and subtlety. In particular, Nora’s unlikely connection with a cam girl called Amber (Jehnny Beth) ends up being the sweetest in the film, despite its upsetting beginning. Their chemistry together –even though it’s mostly through computer screens– is charming and heartfelt.

It’s true that none of the characters’ backstories is explored in as much depth as many might like, but on the other hand, their backstories are also largely irrelevant. The film gives us enough context to understand what they are going through, and while it’s human nature to crave specifics, we actually don’t need them to appreciate the growth of each character. Director Jacques Audiard controls each scene with a precision that feels casual, which is a fine line to draw. The dialogue (on which he had an assist from Céline Sciamma) feels human and authentic in both English and French, and I haven’t even made the space to talk about how he shoots the city (gorgeously).

While not the kind of film that you might see at awards shows or even n wide release here in North America, Paris, 13th District is a gorgeously shot film with some excellent performances and one that you should take the chance to see if you get one.

Paris, 13th District (Les Olympiades) played as part of the 2021 Vancouver International Film Festival.


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