For his ninth feature, Paris, 13th District (Les Olympiades, Paris 13e, 2021), director Jacques Audiard collaborates with French filmmakers Céline Sciamma and Léa Mysius to adapt American cartoonist and illustrator Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel, Killing and Dying (2015).
Shot in monochrome, the story centres on Émilie (Lucie Zhang), Camille (Makita Samba), and Nora (Noémie Merlant), whose lives intertwine through friendship, sex, and love. Émilie and Camille’s apartment is seemingly picked at random from Paris’ populated 13th District. In what feels like an act of voyeurism, the audience is implicit a participant in prying into their exposed emotions and naked flesh.
Émilie and Camille are introduced as lovers. She lies naked on the sofa before he joins her. Text appears on screen to take us back in time to reveal how this all began. We’re yet to meet Nora, who is forced to abandon her future plans when she’s mistaken for cam girl Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth).
Paris, 13th District is about disparate lives converging, a recurring and subtle theme across diverse spaces in Audiard’s filmography. While his newest work is a modest entry amidst films that have garnered critical praise, amongst them: A Prophet (Une Prophète, 2009), Rust and Bone (De rouille et d’os, 2012), and Dheepan (2015), it continues an ongoing thematic conversation. Our lives are integrated, and this interaction is a catalyst for joy and tragedy, hope and despair, contentment and frustration.
In conversation with PopMatters, Audiard discusses how cinema’s status as a popular art form, and its loss of function and purpose to cultivate cultural and social identity, has created an existential dilemma.
Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you?
The cinema was the only way to express my creativity; it’s the way I’m able to communicate with the world.
I was a solitary person, and once I became a filmmaker, with my co-writers, my team, and my actors, and then with the audience, I was opened up to lots of different worlds of communication.
There’s an inherent friction between the filmmaker’s intention and the audience’s cognitive and emotional reading of what it is the filmmaker is trying to communicate.
It’s curious that in more than the 100 years since the birth of cinema, the experience we have when we go to see a film has been limited to only two verbs – to watch and to see. They relate to only one of our senses: sight. What about the other things that people experience? What about the collective experience, the cognitive and the emotional experience? All of this is complex and rich, yet we only use these two verbs when we talk about cinema.
If that’s all filmmaking is, what happens if I take my cell phone and I watch something on it? If what I’m experiencing is not what I’d call cinema, then what is it? What are the words we should use?
Cinema is a relatively young art form, and if it’s in a formative period, has it become simplified, weighed down by its commercial popularity and traditions?
We’re faced with an interesting dilemma in cinema. There are only two arts that we call “popular arts”, and those are music and cinema. What does it mean to be a popular art and how do you define its artistic dimension? By using the word popular, it has inherent marketability, a commercial character, in that there are going to be a lot of people who are going to want to participate or to experience it.
Cinema recognised this almost immediately, and in many respects, it has never gone too far beyond that. Filmmaking began in 1882, and it was commercialised around 1912. By 1934 you had Histoire du cinéma, by Maurice Bardèche and Robert Brasillach, the first history of cinema as an art form. This is only 30 years after the first appearance of cinema, whereas for sculpture and painting, how long did it take for them to be considered an art?
There’s value in the familiar, and Paris, 13th District is a familiar and simple story, albeit with dramatic turns. It opens up its world, inviting the audience to connect with the characters and find meaning.
If you’re classifying filmmakers, I’ve been classified in the middle, between the commercial and the independent. Part of that may be because I’ve sometimes chosen to work in a particular genre, but I take that genre as a starting point. It represents a common language and people have an idea of what to expect.
My role as a filmmaker is to turn things around a little, to put a hole here, or another plot turn there. What then happens is your audience thinks they know what to expect, but you don’t give them what they’re expecting. You give them something different and it becomes an experience that takes them elsewhere.
I do this consciously, but it’s very disappointing when I see a film that is programmed purely to do the first thing – to have a genre film and to give people what they’re familiar with. If they know [the story] in advance, why do they need to see the film?
The idea that has always fascinated me is how a straight line becomes a zigzag.
Literature has asked itself these same questions.
If there are so many archetypal stories, is one of the reasons that films, like dreams, serve to help us to understand our world? Hence, are the same stories told repeatedly to help each generation deal with the cyclic themes that confront them?
We have to think about what the original function and purpose of cinema were. It’s traditional purpose was to be a distraction. It was fairground entertainment, but it quickly morphed into something else, and something important.
It took on the role of helping people and society identify itself. It’s not an accident nor a coincidence that the country where that first became evident was in the US, where you had a country in the early war years, then in the post-war period looking to find itself, and define what it was as a nation. It’s also no accident that one of the first feature films was The Birth of a Nation (Griffith, 1915).
You had this way of establishing what was US society, and it’s a situation that has repeated itself in other cultures, for example, in France the films of Marcel Pagnol and Jean Renoir. The audience can immediately identify with the characters and the archetypes, because it represents to them their identity and what it is to be French. One can say the same thing about Italian post-war cinema – what is it to be Italian and to rebuild society. In 1956 the Nouvelle Vague was trying to establish a whole new set of norms. The way this function serves as a way to help a society identify itself is important, but I don’t see it as part of western cinema anymore, because its function as a commercial entity has taken over.