‘Paris, 13th District’: Sex and Love Tailor-Made for Our Modern Times

No city in the world is as synonymous with love and romance as Paris, but the less glamorous side of sex and dating is showcased in “Paris, 13th District,” a French romantic dramedy set in one neighborhood, the 13th arrondissement of Paris. There are no gratuitous shots of the Eiffel Tower or couples gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes in sidewalk cafes, but plenty of sex, awkwardness, and real moments of connection between the young people who inhabit the district.

The film focuses on three main characters, the first one being Émilie Wong (Lucie Zhang), a college grad in her early twenties who works a thankless job at a call center and has lots of uninhibited sex with multiple partners. Her life turns a corner after she rents out a room in her apartment to Camille Germain (Makita Samba), a male teacher a few years older than her. The pair immediately commence a sexual relationship, and things become complicated after Émilie finds herself catching feelings that Camille doesn’t return. From the outside, it is clear that it was a blunder on both of their parts to have sex while being roommates, although the viewer oscilates back and forth between thinking who is the biggest blunderer. Camille has the good sense to put a stop to the physical relationship after a few weeks, but he is insensitive to Émilie’s feelings and boundaries. But while Camille is arrogant, Émilie is immature and takes out her emotions on his new girlfriend, Stéphanie (Oceane Cairaty). 

Although much of Émilie and Camille’s relationship, at least in the first third of the film, takes place in the confines of the apartment, they’re not in a vacuum, and interactions with their family members and associates nicely give us more of a sense of who these people are. Camille’s toxic behavior isn’t just reserved for Émilie, as he is also dismissive of his own teen sister, Eponine (Camille Léon-Fucien), and her aspiring comedy career, even though their father (Pol White) explains her performing helps her with her stuttering. Émilie, meanwhile, exasperates her own off-screen immigrant mother and her sister (Geneviève Doang) with her stunted behavior. Her biggest “sin” is her avoiding visiting her grandmother in a nursing home, despite the fact she lives in her apartment rent-free. But when she finally goes and sees the older woman, we understand the source of her pain and reluctance. 

A third of the way in, a third main character, Nora Ligier (Noémie Merlant), is introduced. Nora, who returns to law school at age 33 after taking time off to work at her uncle’s real estate agency, finds her plans turned upside down after one of her male classmates confuses her for a popular webcam model and shares a video of “Nora” having sex to their whole cohort. Her storyline intersects with that of Camille and Émilie after she leaves school and takes a job at a real estate agency Camille ends up managing. Through their relationship, which goes from professional to romantic, we see a different side of Camille, as Nora is, at least at first, a better emotional and mental match for him. However, their sexual chemistry is off and Camille continues to contact Émilie. It is interesting to watch as the relationship between Camille and Émilie evolves, and the whole love triangle will especially resonate with female viewers, many who have been both Émilie and Nora at different times.

It might be more accurate to call this a love square, as Nora forms a deep virtual connection with Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth), the webcam model she resembles. Initially, she reaches out to her via her paid website out of curiosity, but the two end up bonding. It can be said that Nora and Amber (real name Louise) are two sides of the same woman, as one owns her sexuality while the other is more inhibited. But the sex MVP of the movie is Émilie, and the filmmakers allow her to embrace her sexuality without judgement. In one memorable scene, she goes on an extended break while working a shift at her restaurant job to have a steamy encounter with a man she meets on an app, returning to work dancing.

Although “Paris, 13th District” was made by French director Jacques Audiard, he adapted the screenplay, along with Céline Sciamma and Léa Mysius, from three short comics written by American cartoonist and graphic novelist Adrian Tomine. This explains why “Paris, 13th District” could take place in any city. But that’s not to say that the Parisian setting does not add anything, it is just not one of the arrondissements in Paris that most non-French people are used to seeing in cinema. It is set in a densely-populated district of high-rise apartment buildings similar to what one would find in New York or Chicago, and there’s nothing traditionally romantic or historical about it, but it certainly feels authentic.

Paris, 13th District” releases April 15 on VOD and in select theaters.