This beautifully shot black-and-white French film Les Olympiades, Paris 13e or Paris 13th District, is an episodic tale of about lust and love amongst the young and beautiful singles in Paris. Directed by Jacques Audiard, there is a lot of nudity in Paris, 13th District, and while the gaze is reportedly not totally male, there seems to be much more attention paid to female breasts than the male anatomy.
It’s important to remember that the French colonized and controlled parts of Asia. Because of France’s involvement in Asia, it is natural that there should be immigrants from its colonies. In Paris, the immigrants from Asia settled in certain areas. And that is what the movie’s title references. Paris is divided into tiny 20 arrondissements or administrative districts. The 13th District has a high concentration of Chinese and Vietnamese businesses and is the home of the Quartier asiatique or Asian Quarter. Also known as the Triangle de Choosy or the Petite Asie (Chinese: 巴黎唐人街, Vietnamese: Phố Tàu Paris), it is, according to Wikipedia, the largest commercial and cultural canter for the Parisian Asian community.
French Asians do suffer from the forever foreigner problem. Anger gave way to a protest in 2016 after the August death of a 49-year-old father-of-two, Zhang Chaolin. He had been attacked by three teenagers, allegedly intent on robbing Zhang’s friend. Yet these attacks are not uncommon, “driven by the perception that Chinese people are weak, will not fight back and carry a lot of cash.” Zhang was attacked outside of Paris, in the suburb of Aubervilliers, (Île-de-France region in the north-eastern suburbs of Paris, France).
The film also sets the action in a district of residential towers, Les Olympiades (or le village des Olympiades) which were built in 1969-1977). As you might have guessed the names refer to the Olympic Games and the eight tallest towers are named after cities that have hosted the Olympic Games.
One of the central characters of Paris, 13th District is a Mandarin-speaking ethnic Chinese woman. When we first meet Émilie Wong (Lucie Zhang) she is naked and seemingly alone in a spacious neat apartment, singing into a karaoke microphone. A man’s voice offers her yogurt. She’s not interested, but lies on top of him, an attractive Black man, Camille Germain (Makita Samba), so that we get a frontal view of her and yet he is modestly covered although seemingly naked.
She works at a call center for cellphone services. She speaks Chinese to her mother who is in London where her sister lives. Her parents have gone to London to help with her sister’s twin babies.
The film then flashes back to show us how Émilie met Camille. Camille responds to an ad for a roommate. Émilie is surprised that the person who texted her is a man and not a woman. She wanted a female roommate, but Camille persists. He’s a teacher at Fernand Léger High School and the location is convenient.
Camille does move in, and the two surrender to their lust, but his initial ardor cools and he wants to have relations with other women. The first is with his colleague and replacement Stéphanie (Oceane Cairaty). Stéphanie and Émilie startle each other. Émilie is just returning from a drug-filled night at a dance party and finds a naked Stéphanie looking in the refrigerator.
Émilie tries to drive Camille and Stéphanie apart, but instead, drives Camille to find another place to live. Émilie ends up without a roommate and out of a job.
Camille has family: His father and younger sister live elsewhere and his mother has recently died. Camille’s father chides Camille for his insensitivity toward his 16-year-old sister, Eponine. While Camille hopes to get a PhD, he ends up working in real estate at a small office. His luck changes when a more experienced real estate agent, Nora Ligier (Noémie Merlant), joins him.
Nora is a returning student. At 32, she’s much older than her fellow students. She had been working in Bordeaux for her uncle. At the university, she finds herself subject to ridicule, at first for her age and style, but later when another student mistakes her for a video cam sex worker named Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth).
Camille will introduce Nora and Émilie, when he suddenly needs Émilie’s help and this is how the foursome are linked, through Camille.
Audiard has been somewhat sensitive to the issue of the male gaze. According to the Observer,
So Audiard relied on intimacy coordinators and entrusted his actors to come up with their own blocking. “We were directing ourselves,” said Zhang. “He wanted to see how naturally we would reach something if he didn’t really give us any indication.” The results are explicit moments that don’t feel exploitative—not the predictable male gaze, but what Lucie describes as a “multi-gaze” that feels more equitable.
I still thought it is readily apparent that the camera emphasizes the nude female bodies in Paris, 13th District. There is one shot of an anonymous erect penis, but if you’ve sampled modern dating in this internet era, you’ve probably seen a penis pic already. That shot is brief glimpse of a photo on a smart phone and the face is obscured.
“Paris, 13th District was written by Audiard, Léline Sciamma and Léa Mysius, but despite the involvement of two female writers (cinematography by Paul Guilhaume), the full frontal nudity is female and that seems to be a decidedly male gaze, but there’s another problem.
Paris, 13th District is loosely based on the short stories by American cartoonist and commercial illustrator, Adrian Tomine. Tomine, whose work can be seen in The New Yorker, was born in Sacramento, the son of two PhD-holding parents (Professor Emeritus of Environmental Engineering at CalState Sac’s Department of Civil Engineering Chris Tomine and Professor Emeritus at CalState Sac’s School of Education Satsuki Ina) who are also both third-generation Japanese American. That makes Tomine a fourth-generation Japanese American.
Knowing the ethnicity of the author of the stories makes one wonder: Is it merely a coincidence that Audiard decided to base his movie in the Quartier asiatique or Asian Quarter of Paris? Further, we see Chinese women, but not Chinese men. When Camille first arrives to see the room for rent, there are Chinese girls in the background, giggling, and speaking in Chinese to Émilie. We hear Émilie speak to her mother; we see her grandmother and her sister, but not her father or her brother-in-law. Émilie, in her second job, hangs around with other Chinese girls. Where are the ethnic Chinese men, and even, why isn’t the part of Camille an ethnic Asian man?
The absence of Chinese ethnic men or any East or Southeast Asian ethnic man troubles me. Is it because the French see them as weak and weak men aren’t sexy? Is this film partially a hyper-sexualization of an ethnic East Asian woman?
Les Olympiades, Paris 13e or Paris 13th District is, perhaps, easier to accept if one isn’t aware of the place that is declared in the name and the ethnicity of the author who inspired the storyline, yet if the place is important, then why is it only ethnic Asian women that we see? Paris 13th District is a problematic film in so many ways that despite the beautiful black and white cinematography, it is hard to recommend.
Paris 13th District made its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival (14 July 2021) and has been in limited release since 15 April 2022. It opens in Japan on 22 April 2022 and in South Korea on 12 May 2022.
For my unabridged reviews and related links, visit Age of the Geek.
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