Review of “Paris, 13th arrondissement”: a new look at French love stories in black and white

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American cartoonist Adrian Tomine uses the graphic novel to do what this other form of literature – the new standard with gray words on white paper – simply hasn’t been able to achieve. Like any writer, he can get inside the heads of his characters, take x-rays of their most intimate insecurities and make them visible to the reader. “Is there a term for being paranoid about being paranoid? asks the young woman in “Amber Sweet,” who isn’t the internet porn star of the story’s title but realizes others see a resemblance to it and begins to worry it’ll ruin her life. life.

Not limited by words, Tomine can also show people’s faces, examining how their expressions and body language change through a sequence of images – revealing and concealing how they really feel. These latter tools bring the medium much closer to cinema than to the written word and may explain why French director Jacques Audiard (“Les Frères Sœurs”, “Un Prophet”) felt an affinity for Tomine’s style, adapting three of his stories in modern currents. -love anthology “Paris, 13th District”, a silky and moving black and white tapestry of single millennials in search of connection.

It’s not so much the format of the graphic novel as Tomine’s insight into human nature – the way he captures the awkwardness and often harsh isolation of contemporary big-city life – that Audiard responds to. Perhaps it may be a slight spoiler to reveal that the main characters all find themselves in partnership at the end of “Paris, 13th arrondissement”, although there is a lot of guesswork along the way as to how. these relationships will align, because no two people seem to be on the same page when they meet.

Well-educated underachiever Emilie (Lucie Zhang) works in a dead-end call center, supplementing her income by renting out the spare bedroom of her apartment at Les Olympiades (a series of large, retro-looking residential blocks in the 13th arrondissement from Paris) . All the stories unfold in and around these buildings, giving a radically different sense of the French capital to the classic Haussmann facades that tourists associate with the city. Audiard made a romantic film set in a decidedly unromantic neighborhood and populated it with characters who are all convinced that it’s better to be single.

Emilie is wary of accepting a male roommate but clicks with Camille, a black man (played by Makita Samba) with a cute smile. No sooner has he moved in than they hook up, which immediately complicates the dynamic between them, especially when he’s trying to bring home a date overnight. With these characters, the problem is that none of them know what they want, and as a result, they are constantly changing the rules. But even those who feel safer have the right to review their limits.

Compared to Emilie, who joins a dating app that makes non-binding sex as easy as pick-up, Nora, a law student in her early thirties (discovered Noémie Merlant’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”) doesn’t feel comfortable jumping into bed with strangers. So after being confused with naughty cam girl Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth) makes classes unbearable, Nora lands a job at the same real estate agency as Camille, and from the start, she sets limits: no ogling, no first names. , strictly professional interactions . While Emilie enjoys anonymous interactions, Nora becomes attached to people once she gets to know them and finds herself falling in love with Camille.

In real life, there’s almost always a disconnect between how people see themselves and how they behave, and it’s these supposed inconsistencies that make these characters so compelling. A typically macho director, Audiard is right to join forces here with the screenwriter of “Portrait”, Céline Sciamma, who excels in capturing the contradictory and impulsive behavior of young people (see “Childhood” and “Being 17”), their ability to open up. to new experiences, but also how failure can make them reluctant to risk future humiliation.

Tomine captures all of this beautifully in his stories, which have been generously adapted by Audiard. The director seems to be looking for an avant-garde equivalent of talkative French relationship films like “La mère et la pute” and “Ma nuit chez Maud”. Words take precedence over physical intercourse here – though Nora reaches out to the real Amber Sweet, disarming the adult performer by expressing a non-erotic interest in her (it’s a tender but relatively naive subplot in a film which does not hesitate to subject its actors to simulated sexual acts).

Other filmmakers have been much more literal in translating comics to the big screen. Some, like Frank Miller, use them as visual blueprints. In his “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” wildly experimental and postmodern, Edgar Wright sought to upend the grammar of cinematic storytelling, borrowing techniques from hand-drawn source material. Audiard isn’t as aggressive and Tomine’s influence may be harder to identify. Yet there is a sort of understatement that lives on: in Tomine’s work, the most important moments often occur between frames, and yet, seeing scenes from either side, the reader – or in this case , the audience – can interpolate how a character’s emotions may have changed in this gap.

There is a devastating example of this technique in “Killing and Dying”, where a character loses his sick mother “off-screen” (death occurs in the conspicuous white space between two sequences). Audiard finds his own oblique way of illustrating the loss, which catches up with Camille when he tries to give away mom’s wheelchair. Besides the decision to shoot most of the film in monochrome, the director tries not to let his stylistic choices interfere with the dramatic moments presented. More crucial is which scenes make the cut, and why he decides to end the film where it does: everyone is conveniently coupled, but they all ended up in other setups earlier in the film, and the The story could have ended there too. It’s never really over. The satisfaction comes from seeing how, piled on top of each other in Les Olympiades, these obviously solitary individuals sometimes find themselves occupying the same emotional space as each other.

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