Les Olympiades (Paris 13th District, France 2021)

Émilie, Nora and Camille (photo © Shanna Besson)

Jacques Audiard has completed ten features so far. It might not seem very many since his first was in 1994. But then he was already into his forties and his first successes as a filmmaker were as a writer, following a similar path to his father Michel Audiard. His early scripts and his early directorial credits were mainly polars, crime films, but gradually he has ventured into other genres as well. I’ve seen all of his directorial features and it does seem to me that he has been the most consistent French filmmaker of his generation. I was a little surprised that Les Olympiades seemed to last only a few weeks in UK cinemas and that I’ve had to wait to watch it on MUBI. It doesn’t seem to have been badly reviewed in the UK and I think that the problem must be more to do with audiences being unsure about what kind of a film Les Olympiades really is.

Émilie works in a Chinese restaurant (photo © Shanna Besson)

The film’s French title refers to a specific architectural project in the 13th arrondissement of Paris – thus the more prosaic English title. The project was designed to celebrate the Grenoble Winter Olympics of 1968. It offers a range of high rise blocks that were intended to attract young professionals. It has also seen the development of a Chinese-Vietnamese quarter. However, the subject of the film is developed through the adaptation of several stories by the American graphic novelist Adrian Tomine. Audiard and his writing collaborators, Céline Sciamma and Léa Mysius, have woven aspects of the narrative threads of these short stories into a seamless single narrative. There are four central characters, three youngish women and one youngish man (‘youngish here means mid twenties into early thirties) and the narrative explores their different problems and approaches to love, sex and romance in the modern city. There is clearly a danger that the narrative could become episodic and not really hang together but I certainly felt that one of the many pleasures of the film was the writing and for me it worked very well.

Nora at her first lecture (photo © Shanna Besson)

We start with Émilie, a young woman from Taiwanese family, and Camille, an African-French doctoral student, working as a school teacher to earn the money to pay for his further study. Émilie is living in her grandmother’s apartment with the old woman in a care home. Émilie rents out a room in the apartment to supplement the meagre income she receives from the casual jobs she takes, in a call centre and then later as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant rather than trying to use her ‘Sciences Po’ (social sciences degree). Camille arrives as her lodger. Nora arrives as a mature student in Paris from Bordeaux. She tells another student in her first lecture that she is 33. It’s possibly not a good idea and Nora struggles to fit in. Émilie and Camille are physically attracted to each other and an intense sexual relationship soon develops. Nora has a very different experience. In an attempt to ‘fit in’ at a student party she buys a wig and a short skirt and several students think she is a porn webcam girl known as ‘Amber Sweet’. This will not turn out well. Later we will find out a little more about Nora’s life in Bordeaux but for now she is forced to leave her course and try to get work as an estate agent using her previous work experience. It is in this guise that she will meet Camille, now nominally managing a small estate agency business for a friend while still working on his thesis. The other characters in the narrative are Emilie’s family (mainly encountered via telephone calls) and Camille’s father and his sister Eponine. If there is a weakness in the script it might be the story of Eponine, a teenager attempting to write material for a stand-up comedy routine. This feels like it could be another narrative thread entirely. It serves mainly to comment on/challenge Camille’s behaviour. The fourth main character is ‘Amber Sweet’ who Nora befriends over the webcam connection in her rather naive way. ‘Amber’ perhaps functions in the narrative structure in much the same way as the families of Émilie and Camille, although of course she has the potential to have a different kind of relationship with Nora.

Amber Sweet (photo © Shanna Besson)

What kind of narrative have the writers (all three of whom are also directors) managed to construct from the short story material? Jacques Audiard has suggested that one of his influences was his memory of Eric Rohmer’s 1969 film Ma nui chez Maud. So strong was the impact of that film that Audiard cast the film’s star Jean-Louis Trintignant in his début feature, Regarde les hommes tomber in 1994. In Ma nuit chez Maud, the Trintignant character is a single man, an engineer who returns to France from work abroad (and who is named Jean-Louis). Over the Christmas holiday in a snowy Clermont-Ferrand Jean-Louis finds himself stranded over night in the apartment of a woman he has only just met. They talk late into the night about love and religious values. Though a sexual liaison looks possible, Jean-Louis, a religious man who has briefly spotted a young woman at Midnight Mass he is attracted towards, does not respond to Maud’s implied invitation. Audiard suggests that Adrian Tomine is perhaps similar to Rohmer as a someone writing ‘moral tales’ and therefore perhaps Les Olympiades might be seen as a kind of 2021 response to Rohmer’s story. It is Émilie who most clearly marks the change in sexual mores with her use of Tinder-like apps – although it does occur to me that in much closer times to Rohmer’s story, Erica Jong had already introduced the “zipless fuck” in her 1973 novel Fear of Flying. I don’t want to spoil the narrative too much but I will point out that there is one instance in the film when Emilie’s attachment to her phone and app does produce an instant and quite joyful example of what Erica Jong might recognise.

Nora and Camille – a difficult relationship? (photo © Shanna Besson)

I guess that with two female co-writers, one of whom is currently a highly celebrated writer-director, Les Olympiades might be seen as a narrative with a female perspective – three women to one man featured. But I’ve seen some comments about the “same old male gaze”. I don’t really understand this but I do agree with the comments that complain about sex scenes which feature more female nudity than male. I suspect that however such scenes are shot, the classification guidelines prevent any sight of male genitalia while exposed female breasts are now fairly routine. This film is an 18 in the UK. We get a pixelated image of a penis on a mobile phone screen – surely most people aged 18 have seen an erect penis by now, especially if they have engaged with Tinder-type dating apps? If this discussion makes the film sound like some kind of arthouse porn movie, it’s not mean to. This is a narrative that engages with serious issues but also has real elements of humour and observation. The three principal characters are humanised characters with flaws, just like the rest of us. At one point I thought to myself, “these are decent people, it’s nice to enjoy their company”. Émilie is perhaps too selfish but she has endearing qualities as well. Similarly, Camille is sometimes arrogant/too clever but basically a nice guy and Nora is damaged by her past experiences but someone you’d like to help. Lucie Zhang who plays Émilie is appearing in her first lead role and Makita Samba as Camille, though more experienced, is also stepping up in terms of the high profile that an Audiard film is given. Both are very good but the film from my point of view is stolen by Noémie Merlant as Nora. She is probably best known for her leading role alongside Adèle Haenel in Portrait de la jeune fille en feu (France 2019) for Céline Sciamma. Jehnny Beth as Amber Sweet is well cast and convincing in her unusual role. Contrary to some critics and ‘users’, I think the writing and the direction are highly-skilled and both effective and affective.

Émilie and Camille on the roof of a high rise – another similarity with La haine? (photo © Shanna Besson)

The film is presented in black and white apart from one shot in colour and presented in 1.85:1 by Paul Guilhaume. That splash of colour in a monochrome film reminded me of La haine (France 1995) as do several other shots. This isn’t too surprising. Matthieu Kassovitz, the director of La haine appeared in a lead role in Audiard’s first two films and there are several similarities in the two narratives, especially in the representation of a particular district of Paris, similarly multi-racial but more down-market in the earlier film. Like La haine, Les Olympiades also features an interesting score, in this instance by Rone, the electronic music producer. It’s not really my kind of music but it did seem particularly resonant at times.

My conclusion is that I enjoyed the film, even though the sex lives of thirty-somethings are generally a mystery to me. I think that the film needs to be seen more widely and you can find it on Apple, BFI and Curzon plus other platforms. One of several moments that I really appreciated was when Camille is asked why he left teaching. Was it the students in a tough school? No, he says, they were fine, it was the the authorities who kept changing the system every six months and made teachers’ lives hell. Who knew French education was in the same terrible mess as that in England? Do give the film a try. It can’t hurt.

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