Jacques Audiard’s freewheeling ensemble picture Paris, 13th District, or Les Olympiades, is a sexy film about sexiness. Sexiness is the glue that binds the film and provides the connective tissue between its disparate scenes and its cast of characters. The movie lives in the jittery longing of before-sex, the woozy residue of after-sex, the urgency of during-sex. People here have a lot of sex, and the older non-sex-having people (a dad, a grandma) are mostly absent, though the dad actually is having sex (off camera). But when the sex is withdrawn, it leaves behind a sadness and a resentment that the film leaves mostly unsaid.
Les Olympiades is the name of the high-rise apartment blocks in the 13th arrondissement of Paris where the action is mostly located – and the film is shot in an unsentimental black-and-white that never makes the city look beautiful in any nouvelle vague style. It is adapted from some stories in the 2015 collection Killing and Dying by the American comic-book artist Adrian Tomine and transplanted from the US to France. It may be that Audiard’s film does not deliver quite the sweetness and empathy for which Tomine’s stories were admired, but there is tremendous fluency and visual charge in his film-making; he gets strongly engaged performances from his cast, and his storytelling has gusto. Audiard also unselfconsciously carries off that mysterious joined-up world effect of a character from one story showing up in another: the discreet sprinkling of happenstance and coincidence that occurs throughout the film.
Lucie Zhang plays Émilie, a sharp-tongued young woman living rent-free in an apartment belonging to her grandma, who is now in a care home suffering from dementia. Émilie is looking for a flatmate to provide her with some unearned income, because she senses (correctly) she is about to be fired from her call-centre job for being rude to the customers. This is Camille (Makita Samba), a high-school teacher, who is about to quit his own job to work on his doctoral thesis. They have sex – he is hugely turned on by the Saran wrap she has put around her stomach to lose weight – but he hurts her feelings by airily declaring he wants not to be a couple with her, merely a roommate-with-benefits.
Camille’s own destiny is to link with that of Nora (Noémie Merlant), a thirtysomething woman who has come to Paris to avoid a toxically coercive relationship in her home town and enrol as a mature student. But when she wears a peroxide wig to a party, Nora is mistaken for “Amber Sweet” (Jehnny Beth), an online sex-chat worker; and, after being noisomely bullied, Nora turns to Amber Sweet herself for help, and their relationship begins to flower.
Relationships and how we treat people are the keynote themes – and maybe my favourite moment comes when Camille makes a family visit to see his recently widowed father (Pol White) and his 16-year-old sister Eponine (Camille Léon-Fucien) who tells him she now intends to be a standup comic and what does he think? Camille instantly delivers a fantastically supercilious monologue about how he despises comedy. Poor Eponine tearfully storms off to her bedroom; Camille haughtily shrugs and with an air of fearless integrity says that she asked for his opinion. His dad is incredulous: “No one gives a fuck what you think!” he rages, adding that all Camille had to do was show a little support.
And it’s true. Opinions are changeable and negligible: the need to show tact, kindness and love is constant. I’m not sure that Les Olympiades says anything too profound about any of its cast of characters, but Audiard achieves something very watchable and entertaining in anthologising them. This is a connoisseur date movie.
• Paris, 13th District screened on 14 July at the Cannes film festival.