American cartoonist Adrian Tomine uses the graphic novel to do what that other form of literature — the standard, gray-words-on-white-paper short story — simply hasn’t been able to achieve. Like any writer, he can go inside his characters’ heads, taking the X-ray of their most private insecurities and rendering it visible to the reader. “Is there a term for being paranoid about being paranoid?” asks the young woman in “Amber Sweet,” who is not the internet porn star of the story’s title, but realizes that others see a resemblance and starts to worry that it’s ruining her life.
Not limited by words, Tomine can also show people’s faces, examining the way their expressions and body language change across a sequence of frames — revealing and concealing what they’re really feeling. These latter tools bring the medium far closer to cinema than the written word and may explain why French director Jacques Audiard (“The Sisters Brothers,” “A Prophet”) felt an affinity for Tomine’s style, adapting three of his stories into strands of modern-love anthology “Paris, 13th District,” a silky, soulful black-and-white tapestry of single millennials seeking connection.
It’s not the graphic-novel format so much as Tomine’s insight into human nature — the way he captures the awkwardness and often-harsh isolation of contemporary big-city life — that Audiard responds to. Perhaps it may be a slight spoiler to reveal that the main characters all wind up partnered at the end of “Paris, 13th District,” although there’s plenty of guesswork along the way as to how those relationships will align, since no two people seem to be on the same wavelength when they meet.
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Underachiever Emilie (Lucie Zhang) works a dead-end call-center job, augmenting her income by renting the spare bedroom in her apartment at Les Olympiades (a series of tall, retro-looking residential blocks in Paris’ 13th arrondissement). All the stories take place in and around these buildings, which gives a radically different sense of the French capital from the classic Haussmanian façades that tourists associate with the city. Audiard has made a romantic film set in a decidedly unromantic-looking quarter and populated it with characters who’re all convinced they’re better off single.
Emilie’s wary of accepting a male roommate, but clicks with Camille, a Black guy (played by Makita Samba) with a nice smile. No sooner has he moved in than they wind up hooking up, which immediately complicates the dynamic between them, especially when he tries to bring home an overnight date. With these characters, the trouble is that neither of them know what they want, and therefore, they’re constantly changing the rules. But even those who feel more certain are entitled to revise their boundaries.
Compared to Emilie, who joins a dating app that makes no-strings sex every bit as easy as having take-out delivered, early-30s law school student Nora (“Portrait of a Lady on Fire” discovery Noémie Merlant) doesn’t feel comfortable jumping into bed with strangers. So, after being mistaken for kinky cam girl Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth) makes going to class unbearable, Nora gets a job at the same real-estate agency as Camille, and straightaway, she sets boundaries: no ogling, no first names, their interactions should be strictly professional. Whereas Emilie gets off on anonymous interactions, Nora warms to people once she gets to know them, and finds herself falling for Camille.
In real life, there’s nearly always a gap between how people see themselves and how they actually behave, and it’s these would-be inconsistencies that make these characters feel so convincing here. A typically macho director, Audiard is smart to partner with “Portrait” screenwriter Céline Sciamma here, as she excels in capturing the contradictory and impulsive behavior of young people (see “Girlhood” and “Being 17”) — their capacity to open themselves up to new experiences, but also the way failure can make them hesitant to risk future humiliation.
Tomine captures all of this beautifully in his stories, which have been liberally adapted by Audiard here. The director seems to be seeking a cutting-edge equivalent to talky French relationship movies like “The Mother and the Whore” and “My Night at Maud’s.” Here, words take a back seat to physical intercourse — although Nora does reach out to the real Amber Sweet, disarming the adult performer by expressing a non-erotic interest in her (it’s a tender but relatively naive subplot in a film that’s not shy about putting its actors through simulated sex acts).
Other filmmakers have been far more literal in translating comics to the big screen. Some, like Frank Miller, use them like visual blueprints. In his wildly experimental, postmodern “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” Edgar Wright sought to shake up the grammar of filmic storytelling, borrowing techniques from the hand-drawn source material. Audiard isn’t nearly as aggressive, and Tomine’s influence can be harder to identify. Still, there’s a kind of understatement that carries over: In Tomine’s work, the most important moments often occur between frames, and yet, by showing scenes on either side, the reader — or in this case, the audience — can interpolate how a character’s emotions may have changed in that gap.
There’s a devastating example of this technique in “Killing and Dying,” where a character loses her ailing mother “off-screen” (the death occurs in the conspicuous white space between two sequences). Audiard finds his own oblique way to illustrate the loss, which catches up with Camille when he tries to give away mom’s wheelchair. Apart from the decision to shoot most of the film in monochrome, the director tries not to let his stylistic choices interfere with the dramatic moments on display. More crucial is which scenes make the cut, and why he chooses to wrap the film where he does: Everyone’s conveniently coupled up, but they’ve all found themselves in other configurations earlier in the film, and the story could have ended there too. It’s never really over. The satisfaction comes in seeing how, packed on top of each other in Les Olympiades, these evidently lonely individuals occasionally manage to find themselves occupying the same emotional space as one another.
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