Jacques Audiard’s Les Olympiades (English title: Paris, 13th District) is a quintessential French movie. Populated by a trio of thirty-somethings moving around with a high degree of angst and confusion about what they want, the film has a script by Audiard and Celine Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire). Though an adaptation of three stories by American cartoonist Adrian Tomine, the screenplay doesn’t possess the structure of an anthology. Everyone sports a facade; some reveal who they are underneath without hesitation, while others take a long time. It’s only in the last 15 minutes of the film that they discover their true identities.
Audiard’s film, which comes with a mild French New Wave flavour, constantly confounds in its early portions because, as I said, the characters are yet to figure out what they want. The most memorable character in Paris, 13th District is Nora (Noémie Merlant), a 33-year-old real estate agent pursuing a law degree in a classroom filled with students much younger than her. I found the awkwardness of that situation amusing because, as an Indian, you get hit by the realisation that it’s not too different in France either.
Nora is single too, and one day, looking for fun, she waltzes into a nightclub sporting a blonde wig. Here comes a serious problem. She learns, to her shock, about a doppelganger named Amber Sweet (Jenny Beth), a performer for a pornographic website. At the nightclub, the male guests immediately mistake her for Amber and soon enough, her phone gets inundated with lurid messages and pictures. When an eagerly curious Nora decides to meet Amber online, it sows the seeds for the most poignant friendship in the film. Noémie imbues her character with the necessary strength, vulnerability and playfulness. And the decision to bring in the co-writer of Portrait of a Lady on Fire to this film becomes clear to us later on.
Save for Noémie, who was brilliant in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I wasn’t familiar with the other principal cast members, Makita Samba, Lucie Zhang, and Jenny Beth, who are all relative newcomers. But they come loaded with an arsenal that gives the impression that they have been in the acting business for a long time. Three of these characters cross paths in a setting straight out of the architectural digest, captured in gorgeous black-and-white by cinematographer Paul Guilhaume.
The only male protagonist in the film, Makita, goes by a feminine-sounding name Camille Germain, a single English teacher who shows up at the doorstep of call centre executive Emilie (Lucie Zhang) after coming across an ad for a shared apartment. She expected a woman, but her demeanour suggests she has been missing the presence of a man for a long time. Our guess is validated without much ado when she lets him in and interviews him about his habits, including his love life. He tells her he channels all his work-related frustration into “intense sexual activity”. No prizes for guessing what happens next.
Sometime later, Camille gives Emilie the cold shoulder because he is not yet ready for a serious commitment. Is he capable of it, though? Neither she nor we can figure him out. When Emilie comes home one day to see his female colleague in her apartment, she gets a rude awakening. He acts so casually about it that one asks whether such individuals exist. Well, they do. But let’s not judge them yet. As the film later reveals, they are not inhuman.
Camille will get his own medicine fed to him soon, and when that moment finally arrives, we get an impressively restrained display of emotional revelation. Camille and Emilie undergo a drastic transformation too. The final scenes involving Camille, Emilie, Nora and Amber tug at one’s heartstrings. Paris, 13th District is, in my book, Audiard’s most romantic film since Read My Lips.