While they may appear to be polar opposites, sexual intimacy and social isolation are intertwined – and the Covid-19 pandemic has only complicated this complex relationship in the digital age. Young people, it seems, have been affected the most, as our default form of communication encourages detachment as much as connection.
In “Les Olympiades” (or “Paris 13e”), previewed at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, director Jacques Audiard explores these relationships through the stories of three inhabitants of the titular Parisian district. Shot in romantic and sultry black and white, the veteran director’s latest film is charming, brooding, and refreshingly unpretentious as he delves into the realities of intimacy in the modern world.
Franco-Chinese telephone operator and post-graduate Émilie (Lucie Zhang), English teacher and doctoral student Camille (Makita Samba), and 33-year-old law student Nora (Évasion “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” Noémie Merlant) are all outcasts in their own way. They are affected by the social isolation of the digital age and the often overwhelming loneliness of life in a big city. Much like the separation felt by the subjects of the film, “The Olympics” situates the audience on the outside, watching from afar – with only fleeting and almost episodic glimpses of each of the characters’ true attempts at love and the losses that occur. ‘follow. Audiard passes little judgment on his characters, with audiences instead being treated with a loose collection of coincidences and narrative quirks that bring Camille, Emilie, and Nora together in interesting and ever-changing ways.
The screenplay – co-written by Audiard, Léa Mysius and Céline Sciamma (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire”) – is adapted from some of the short stories in American cartoonist Adrian Tomine’s 2015 comic collection, “Kill and Die” . It takes place mostly in an apartment building, focusing on the intersections between the three millennia, but told almost exclusively through unspoken words and stolen or lingering glances. The result is a convoluted mesh of relationships where, for much of the film, Émilie loves Camille, Camille loves Nora, and Nora loves cam girl Amber Sweet (French singer-songwriter Jehnny Beth), who she hooks up with after having been mistaken for sex. worker at a law school party. Throughout, the most obvious of the intersections between these characters is gender and their ever-changing relationship with it.
Central theme of the film, sex is also the main means of introducing the characters. We meet Camille for the first time, for example, when he responds to Emilie’s request for a roommate and, after inviting her, shares that he “channels professional frustration into intense sexual activity”. When he starts asking her more questions about his own life, she responds “fuck first, ask later”. (However, when he asks what that means, she says she was just reciting an old Chinese proverb about shoes and feet.) Immediately afterwards, they begin a passionate, albeit short-lived, sexual relationship that manages to persist for a long time. after the end.
In a story where sex often occurs before the characters know each other completely, the connections they form are strained and volatile. And it’s the heartbreaking, lonely, or stoic consequences of their desire that lead the characters through the film to the end. However, it is also through their relationship to sex that “The Olympics” allow its characters to really get to know each other. As the four characters – Amber included – are caught up in an ever-changing web of relationships and sexual partners, the gender they have (or don’t have) is crucial to their story arcs. Nora and Camille’s relationship in the bedroom, to cite a notable example, is what ultimately bares Nora’s insecurities when it comes to sex, allowing her bedroom to expand as the film progresses.
That sex – beautifully choreographed in the film’s many sex scenes by Stéphanie Chêne – is truly vital to the characters and the story itself is a fact that Audiard never backs down. This is both what dictates the stories that make up the essential fabric of the “Olympics” and what makes Audiard’s competitive selection so compelling.