‘My characters are all wrong about themselves’

Jacques Audiard pauses our interview with a halting hand gesture. “Can I ask Jehnny a question?” says the film-maker.

Jehnny is Jehnny Beth, the TV presenter, film producer, frontwoman of the English rock band Savages and star of Audiard’s ninth film as director.

Today, the multitalented Beth is also acting as Audiard’s English translator. It makes for an interesting, if frequently tangential, interview experience.

“If Nora and Amber met in a cafe, as they would have to in real life, would they have been that intimate?”

“That’s a good question, Jacques,” laughs Beth.

She’s quite right. It is a good question. We should explain. Audiard’s Paris, 13th District is a love story – or rather a series of love stories – set against the lively backdrop of Paris’s 13th arrondissement.

The film, an intersecting adaptation of three comics by Adrian Tomine – co-written by Audiard, Céline Sciamma and Léa Mysius – introduces Émilie (newcomer Lucie Zhang), a science graduate working in such nowhere-fast jobs as waitressing and phone-jockeying at a call center when she meets handsome new flatmate Camille (Makita Samba).

Lucie Zhang and Makita Samba in Paris, 13th District

They have sex but Camille insists they remain friends-with-benefits. He is more interested in Nora (Noémie Merlant), a thirtysomething woman who has come to Paris as a mature student and to escape an abusive relationship.

On campus, Nora sticks out like a sore thumb, no more so than when she wears a peroxide wig to a party, and is mistaken for “Amber Sweet” (Jehnny Beth), an online sex-chat celebrity.

After much jeering, Nora finally seeks out Amber Sweet and – via screen time – strikes up the most meaningful romantic bond in the film.

“Amber Sweet arrives in the story, only through computer and telephone screens,” says Audiard. “She lives far from Paris, but she is the most influential character in the story. I wanted to do a movie about love in the romantic sense. The notion was supposed to be like a history. When we are discovering each other through technology, the relationship becomes a record of the relationship. And when there are apps and hook-ups, and people sleep together on the first night – when is the love discourse happening? Does it happen afterwards? Is it something that is still necessary for the human condition? The paradox of the movie is that the people who achieve the highest level of intimacy in the movie have a relationship through a computer.”

Watching My Night with Maud, there is no need for the sex act at the end of the conversation. They have already achieved a greater intimacy

Beth says: “I think the relationship that Nora and Amber make through the computer creates some sort of foreign language. Sometimes with a foreign language we can say things that we would not say otherwise. I definitely believe that. For someone who, like myself, moved to England when I was really young, you find yourself living in a foreign country and you use the foreign language in a way that makes you able to become whoever you want. And making the film was very interesting. The funny story is that the casting happened remotely because it happened during Covid. So we taped ourselves from a distance. We started knowing ourselves through computers. And the computer scenes in the film were filmed in real time. I was acting in front of the computer in a different room from Noémie. And Jacques was filming that in real time.”

She turns to the director: “So I don’t think they would have been so intimate if they had met in a cafe,” she says.

talking to women

Audiard’s question for Beth is made all the more relevant by the unlikely influence of My Night with Maud, a 1969 nouvelle vague drama by Éric Rohmer, on their film. In Maud, the third installment of Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales sequence, four single Parisians, each knowing one of the other three, chat about religion, Marxism, Blaise Pascal on mathematics, and human existence.

Most of the drama comprises a conversation on desire between a man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and a woman (Françoise Fabian). It’s the film, says Audiard, that taught him how to talk to women.

“It was a film that left a big impression on me,” says Audiard. “And a little like Eric Rohmer, Adrian Tomine, at the end of his stories about him, his characters about him seem to have learned something about life and about themselves. Watching My Night with Maud, there is no need for the sex act at the end of the conversation. They have already achieved a greater intimacy.”

Director Jacques Audiard.  Photograph: Christophe Simon/AFP via Getty

Director Jacques Audiard. Photograph: Christophe Simon/AFP via Getty

Rohmer’s influence is doubly interesting when one considers that Audiard has frequently characterized himself as a writer who does not especially prize dialogue: his father’s dialogue, meanwhile, made for generations of swapped quotes. The younger Audiard wishes he had started making films earlier in life. He is the son of Michel Audiard, who directed only a few films but who was feted as a prolific screenwriter in the family’s native France.

Growing up, Jacques loved cinema but chose to read philosophy and literature at college, even if he was binge-watching five films a day around various cinemas in and around the Champs-Elysées at weekends.

Film editing lured him into the industry, and he found work as an assistant editor on Roman Polanski’s freaky Parisian drama The Tenant in 1976, before following his father into script-writing. Audiard penned more than a dozen films before making his directorial debut in 1994, aged 42, with See How They Fall, which earned him the César Award for best first feature film.

He has, subsequently, made up for any lost time with a series of epoch-defining pictures that revisit the Gallic antiheroes typically essayed by Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo during the nouvelle vague years.

A Prophet (2009), a tremendous prison drama chronicling the rise of a young Arab on a Corsican-dominated yard, won the Grand Prix at Cannes

A Self-Made Hero won the best screenplay award at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival, ushering in an era of Audiardian dominance on the Croisette and at the César Awards.

Read My Lips (2001), concerning a deaf female office worker who falls in with a criminal (Vincent Cassel), won three Césars; The Beat that My Heart Skipped (2005), a spiritual remake of James Toback’s 1978 thriller Fingers won at Bafta and Berlin and made Romain Duris a star; and, A Prophet (2009), a tremendous prison drama chronicling the rise of a young Arab on a Corsican-dominated yard, won the Grand Prix at Cannes and introduced Tahar Rahim to a global, very appreciative audience.

Colour-blind bed-hopping

The freewheeling Paris, 13th District is markedly different from these earlier swaggering, existential dramas. Race, the loaded issue that underpinned A Prophet and Audiard’s Tamil Tiger-themed 2015 Palme d’Or winner, Dheepan, makes way for colour-blind bed-hopping.

The setting, too, is unlike any version of Paris we’ve seen on screen, enhanced by Paul Guilhaume’s lush monochrome cinematography.

“I have shot a lot in Paris,” says the director. “It is a bit like a museum. Paris is very protected, you know, in terms of its architecture; you’re not allowed to build very high buildings. But the 13th District was completely wiped out and recreated by modernists. I think that’s really good. Whereas I wanted to show a contemporary and modern metropolis and it is one of the areas of Paris that has the most new construction. I lived there for about 10 years. I love it because it’s very diverse, in terms of its architecture and its people.”

Jacques Audiard on the set of Paris, 13th District with Lucie Zhang and Makita Samba.  Photographer: Shanna Besson

Jacques Audiard on the set of Paris, 13th District with Lucie Zhang and Makita Samba. Photographer: Shanna Besson

The film couldn’t be further removed from Audiard’s previous (and sole English-language) feature, The Sisters Brothers, a western in which bounty hunter siblings played by John C Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix chase down Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed.

“I’ve been asked this question a lot,” says Audiard. “But from my perspective everything feels like a continuity. When you start a new movie, you’re trying to treat a subject that wasn’t treated in a previous one. My interest in the project evolves as I’m making the film. I’m rewarded by the experience and evolution of making it, not by any external rewards. But the common thread in my characters – I think – is that they are wrong about themselves. And we follow them in the movie and then, at the end, they’ve learned something about themselves. And as far as I can remember, they’re all like that.”

He looks up from under his trademark hat, an accessory he attributes to baldness as opposed to cultural allusion: “I hope they are.”

Paris, 13th District opens March 18th

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