Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Apr 14, 2022 5:55 pm 
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FRENCH TRAILER (English subtitles)

Émilie meets Camille who is attracted to Nora, who crosses paths with Amber. But it's more than that. . .

Audiard undercuts - a bit - the effect of his film about young thirty-somethings as involving entertainment by doing an anthology picture - shot in classic, romantic black and white - with four or five different stories linked by a common - built up, high rise, unglamorous - arrondissement of Paris, the 13th, in the outer south-east segment of the city. But by this structure the film provides more of what it seeks, perhaps: a panorama of a younger generation of French people.

And this tradeoff isn't as limiting as it might be because the skilled writers, headed by scenarist-director Céline Sciamma, working with the graphic novels of Japanese-American artist Adrian Tomine, provide story lines that intermingle: the two characters introduced at first are threaded through the whole. These are Émilie Wong (Lucie Zhang) and Camille Germain (Makita Samba), an Asian woman raised in France with Taiwanese family background and a young black man respectively (wherever his people are from, his father, played by Pol White, speaks fluent, idiomatic French too).

Émilie takes in Camille as a flatmate, and they promptly start having energetic sex; then things slough off and coolness begins on her part when he, who's busy with his university studies, says "Not tonight." Then we meet the cheerful Nora, from Bordeaux like one of the co-writers, Léa Mysius, a white woman, very enthusiastic to have found an apartment 10 minutes from the faculty of law of a branch of the Sorbonne. Nora is played by Noémie Merlant, star of Sciamma's 2019 Cannes Best Screenplay and Queer Palm winner Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

Basically Camille tries to penetrate Nora's frigidity; she becomes his "project," which Émilie mocks him for. She is a bystander of this process, because she and Camille sort-of-love each other and stay in regular touch. A curious adventure of Nora fills a middle section, drawn from Tomie's graphic novel ideas. She goes to a riotous, giant, widely promoted "Spring Break" dance party (the name in English) in a skimpy, skin-tight dress and wearing a blonde wig. There, she is mistaken for a famous online porno figure known as Amber Sweet (Jenny Beth, who composed the score of Ex Machina). Cell-phone photos of her taken at the club go online and are spread around at the Faculty of Law and she becomes a laughing stock, and drops out of school. She meets Camille applying for a real estate agent job to him as he's running the little agency of a family member. His studies are now on hold because he needs to raise money. Émilie has been fired from her telemarketing job and now is a waitress in a big Asian restaurant, while pursuing anonymous sex via a hookup app.

Nora and Camille amusingly pretend to be formal and correct as real estate business associates but that quickly breaks down and their intense but abortive sexual relationship begins. Is it because Nora is frigid; a virgin; just out of practice; or a lesbian that makes Camille's warm and adept love-making efforts fail to awaken Nora's sexuality or give her an orgasm? Émilie hears about this with amusement. Meanwhile there are little scenes between Camille and Eponine (Camille Léon-Fucien), his sister, a large young woman with a stutter whose love is standup and who loses her stutter when she's on stage. And there are also several scenes showing Émilie and relatives, notably her grandmother (Xing Xing Cheng), who is slipping into dementia. Émilie can't handle this and is neglectful, even though her grandmother's care center is not far away.

Nora contacts Amber Sweet - it's easy to have a private session with her, if you pay - and this odd relationship becomes a satisfying and "real" one for both of them, so they start connecting frequently on Skype and finally meet up in person. The relationship is meant to be touching but always feels a bit far-fetched.

If you're been paying attention to the frequent hints you'll not be surprised that the film will end with Émilie and Camille back together and acknowledging their mutual affection. Zhang and Samba are relaxed and sympathetic actors. Zhang is very good at rendering the cynical, at bottom forgiving, frankness of her character. Samba is tall, not particularly handsome, but good natured-seeming, with a ready smile. With his convincing sexual action, reading glasses, and pleasant way with dialogue, he makes a new kind of French leading man (appealing also for some of us because his character has been a schoolteacher and plans to return to that work). Zhang makes a new kind of main secondary character in a French film. She's Asian, and has the family and the Chinese language skills to prove it, but she often comes off as just as French as anybody else.

This is a new direction for Jacques Audiard, who got his start with genre-mixing films that reached a brilliant peak with the stunning remake of James Toback's debut film Fingers, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, which made Romain Duris into a bigger, more serious star, and the gangster coming-of-age epic A Prophet, which made nobody Tahar Rahim into an offbeat heartthrob. Rust and Bone, which came next, was also compelling; but I was not quite sure I wasn't praising it because the previous two films had been so great. The director triumphed critically with his Tamil immigrant drama Dheepan (though it felt to me like a bit of a letdown). I was already full of admiration of Audiard for his genre-twisting crime story Read My Lips/Sur mes lèvres in 2002, when I had no idea what I was in for. But he seemed to be floundering with his stab at an English-language comic Western, The Sisters Brothers.

Paris, 13th District doesn't try for the excitement of The Beat My Heart Skipped or the grandeur of A Prophet or the seriousness of Dheepan but it's remarkably fluid, fluent, specific, and entertaining. The narrative flourishes, sometimes far-fetched, don't go terribly deep. It seems the character of Nora is singularly unappealing, and it's not clear if that is intentional or not. Wang and Samba in contrast are extremely likeable actors and one hopes to see more of them. If you look at the usual run of current popular French romantic/sexual comedies, this film is massively more real, specific, and intelligent. That's despite its essential superficiality, which reflects the commitment-averse millennial generation it depicts. Shooting in this unglamorous dramatically un-Haussmannian part of Paris and in black and white and with unusually graphic sex are effective ways of clearly setting the film apart from the usual glossy French rom-com product.

Paris, 13th District/Les Olympiades, Paris 13e, 105 mins., debuted in Competition at Cannes Jul. 2021. Numerous Cannes and César nominations. Over two dozen other festivals including four in the us, Chicago, Philadelphia, AFI, and Frameline. French theatrical release Nov. 3, 2021. Originally screened for this review as part of the NYC Mar. 3-13, 2022 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema. AlloCiné press rating 3.7 (74%). Metacritic rating now now 76%. US release Apr. 15, 2022. ( The New Yorker's reviewer Anthony Lane published a surprisingly enthusiastic review of it in this week's issue. If Metacritic considered that, instead o his back-page colleague Richard Brody's "smarmy smugness" pan, the Metascore might be considerably higher.)

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