Perhaps you’ve heard the news: The big-screen sex scene is dead. Finished. Kaput. Or, if it’s not completely shuffling off this mortal coil, you could say that it’s on life support and being prepped for last rites. This death certificate has been issued before, of course, but given that recent think pieces have performed critical autopsies on carnal cinema — and that appreciations for erotic thrillers now double as eulogies — it feels as if the days of steamy movie hook-ups have been put indefinitely on hold. Blame the infantilization of audiences, the omnipresence of porn, the changing cultural tides or the premium-cable voyeurism-slash-car wreck that is Euphoria. Whatever cause you pick, the idea of representing or recreating sex as a narrative device now feels like a relic of the distant past.
No one seems to have informed French director Jacques Audiard of this demise, however, and there are moments when you watch Paris, 13th District and wonder if he’s singlehandedly trying to resuscitate the concept of old-fashioned screen shtupping. An adaptation of three short stories from the brilliant graphic novelist Adrian Tomine — though “remix” might actually be a better description — this dizzying tale of three restless souls in the City of Light doesn’t skimp on showing us the Eros of their ways. There’s enough sex on display to risk it eclipsing everything else these characters go through, from family matters to public humiliations to [gasp] something approaching genuine communciation. But the intimate physical interactions are so baked in to the fabric of the film that they feel vital to this look at young, hot citydwellers colliding into other like horny molecules. All this unleashed libidinous energy fuels so much of what they do, who they bond with, how they navigate the world. Why wouldn’t you make that a part of the portrait as well?
It starts with an apartment. Émilie (Lucie Zhang) is in need of a roommate. Camille (Makita Samba) drops by to check the place out. She thought he was a woman when he texted her because of his name; he wants the room because he’s a teacher and its close to his school, despite the fact that Émilie only wants to live with a female. They quickly end up in bed together, then copulating nightly when he moves in. After he brings a fellow professor home one night, some boundaries are drawn. Words are said, hearts are broken and Camille moves out. Life goes on for each of them, though neither can quite forget the other.
Soon, we meet Nora (Portrait of a Lady on Fire‘s Noémie Merlant, quietly proving she’s the contemporary French actor to keep an eye on). A graduate student who recently moved to Paris to continue her studies, she makes the unfortunate decision to wear a blond wig to a party at a club. It happens to be the same wig that a popular porn actor and cam-girl named Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth), and she also happens to be a dead ringer for Nora; cue a lot of lewd comments, clips being passed around the classroom and a complete estrangement from her daily life. It also sparks an obsession with this online celebrity, which leads to an odd friendship between the two women. Eventually, we run into Camille again, who’s now working as a real estate agent for a friend. He hires Nora to help out. Guess who ends up in bed with each other? And who then re-enters Camille’s orbit?
Shot in black-and white — all the better to channel Jules and Jim and Masculin Feminin, my dear — and filled with scenes that shuffle into each other in between sizzling les rapports sexuels, Paris, 13th District presents a distinctly vintage version of Euro-urban life, with its cafes and clubs and cramped but cozy flats that miraculously have views of the Seine. Not even the occasional impromptu Tinder hook-up in between restaurant shifts can kill the throwback-romantic mood, though you never get the sense that Audiard, or his cowriters Celine Sciamma (yes, that Celine Sciamma) and Léa Mysius, are indulging in Nouvelle Vague nostalgia for its own sake. Rather, it feels like they’re trying to recreate the sensation of encountering these turned-around thirtysomethings in Tomine’s sketched-out comic panels, which renders their messy relationships and miscomunications in crisp, clear lines. Audiard has always had a knack for the hardboiled (see: A Prophet, The Beat My Heart Skipped, the revenge thriller Dheepan), but he’s in a surprisingly breezy mood — and much lighter storytelling mode — here, as if these somewhat rootless friends and lovers have loosened him up in the process of putting their ups and downs onscreen.
And while the director is no stranger to staging sex onscreen, as anyone who broke a sweat watching his 2012 Marion Cotillard/Matthias Schoenaerts melodrama Rust and Bone can attest, there’s a different feel to how Audiard is presenting all this skin-on-skin action here. He’s somehow leaning in to these sequences in a way that doesn’t make you feel like he’s leering, or that he’s trying to justify creeping out on these naked bodies in a way that some other French filmmakers do. It’s a strong contender for being the sexist movie of the year, in fact, because he’s not trying so determinedly to be “sexy.” He’s merely not giving this particular, not inconsequential aspect of these lives short shrift. Fucking comes as naturally to these characters as breathing, or crying, or conversing. And for a little under two hours, you get to bask in the second-hand high of watching people figuring things out one person-to-person connection at a time.