Les Olympiades Paris 13th District

Les olympiades is a fresh, youthful film that’s sexy without being exploitative

“It’s the kind of movie that you can imagine yourself watching at a particular stage of your life, and that might completely transform how you see yourself and those around you.”

Despite a recent revival in erotic thrillers, sex is dying in American cinema. Since the late ’90s, the representation of sexual desire and completion has been on a steady decline. There are many reasons, ranging from the Disney-fication of cinema to rising concerns surrounding the #MeToo movement. 

Sex is ripe for conflict and emotion. It can reveal parts of ourselves that we otherwise keep hidden when done right. With his latest Les olympiades, Jacques Audiard (The Sisters Brothers and A Prophet) exposes what is lost when sex is relegated to the internet’s darker corners (and occasionally, the Quebec government’s official COVID updates). The stakes are high, a mix of extreme vulnerability and potential for humiliation. 

In Les olympiades, the lives of four characters — three women and a man — are deeply intertwined. They’re friends, they’re lovers, they’re enemies. In many ways, the film embodies the clichés associated with French cinema: it’s a black and white film about brooding, beautiful people who brood beautifully. If that maybe doesn’t appeal to you, it’s worth noting that along with Audiard, both Céline Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) and Léa Mysius (Ava) are also listed as screenwriters. In many ways, the film stands as a collaborative meeting of some of France’s greatest working filmmakers working together to create a tender and challenging portrait of Paris’s 13th district. 

The film takes on a very episodic structure. Characters come and go, and loose ends aren’t necessarily resolved. We are first introduced to Émilie (a magnetic and star-making performance by Lucie Zhang), who works in a call centre and is looking for a roommate. She spends most of her days and nights alone, talking on the phone with her disappointed mother. When Camille (Makita Samba) first comes to see her spare room, she tries to turn him away, not wanting to live with a man. It doesn’t take long for her to invite him in, though, and for them to hook up. 

Émilie feels liberated by this encounter and is eager to explore sex further. Rather than being painted as a revelatory one-on-one experience, the film examines how Émilie was previously boxed in. She doesn’t dote on Camille as an obsessive lover but as a woman keen on exploring sex with someone comfortable and close-by. After an MDMA-sponsored night out, she arrives home to see him with another woman — she clings to him lovingly, with only a faint whiff of jealousy. Their relationship transforms quite organically over the film but is never played as weak melodrama. It’s played for laughs but not at anyone’s expense. It’s sweet rather than corny or mean-spirited. It captures pretty beautifully the careful tone at work in the film, grounded in aesthetic naturalism and emotional curiosity.

The movie does indulge in some of the high fantasy associated with the melodrama (that I love when done well). One of our other characters (who also hooks up with Camille) is Nora (the always fantastic Noémie Merlant), a former real-estate agent who has returned to school to study law. One night, she goes out to the club wearing a blonde wig and is mistaken for a popular cam-girl, Amber Sweet. The evolution of this narrative thread is fascinating as it explores the notion of doubles and how they are associated with intense paranoia and feelings of being an imposter. While this storyline might seem a bit far-fetched given the tone of the rest of the movie, it leads to a rather improbable connection and some of the film’s most significant moments as it explores the possibility of intimacy in online sex-work and virtual connections. 

Les olympiades is a fresh and youthful film that is sexy without ever being exploitative. The performances are rich, and the characters are complex, gripped with the uncertainty of our modern age. It’s the kind of movie that you can imagine yourself watching at a particular stage of your life, and that might completely transform how you see yourself and those around you. ■

Les Olympiades (aka Paris 13th District), directed by Jacques Audiard

Les Olympiades opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, April 15.

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