Jacques Audiard and Jehnny Beth interview: 'I wanted to make a movie on love discourse.'
French director Jacques Audiard talks to Culture Whisper about his latest film Paris, 13th District with actor/musician Jehnny Beth
But he's occasionally stepped outside of those expectations. The disability romance Rust and Bone and the revisionist Western The Sisters Brothers (also his English-language debut) veer into newer directions; they're even experimental in some ways. Audiard's new film Paris, 13th District is like an apotheosis of that change. With Petite Maman filmmaker Céline Sciamma and the unjustly underrated Léa Mysius (Ava), Audiard adapts three works by illustrator Adrian Tomine and sticks them together in a liberated narrative – all unfolding in pristine black-and-white.
Jehnny Beth. Photo: DDAPR
The film follows three characters who live in the 13th arrondissement, mostly connected by coincidence and free from rigid plotting. Emilie (Lucie Zhang) is a young French-Chinese woman who works menial jobs, has few aims in life, and embarks on an intensely sexual relationship with the often unlikeable schoolteacher Camille (Makita Samba). Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s Noémie Merlant also stars as a mature student, Nora, who’s suddenly abused and humiliated when people mistake her for a famous cam girl called Amber Sweet, played by actor and musician Jehnny Beth.
TV/Cinema Editor Euan Franklin chats with Audiard and Beth about the writing and rehearsal processes, the representation of sex workers, and how modern technology affects love discourse. The interview was conducted with an interpreter.
Lucie Zhang and Makita Samba as Emilie and Camille. Photo: Shanna Besson.
Jacques, you co-wrote this film with two excellent voices in French cinema – Céline Sciamma and Léa Mysius. I was wondering why you decided to work with them? Had you met them before?
Jacques Audiard: 'Léa was the wife of my DP [director of photography, Paul Guilhaume]. Céline, I’ve known her for a very long time. I know she’s a very good scriptwriter and she had a very thorough knowledge of the work of Adrian Tomine.'
with Adrian Tomine’s graphic novels as well as the 13th District,
what struck a chord with you about them? Why did you want to make a film set
around that particular area?
JA: 'When I read Tomine – and I didn’t know him before I decided to use his work – what I liked is the characters that he was offering. I will never have thought of a young Asian girl or the cam girl or even the character of Nora. The only character we had to make up to make the whole thing gel was the character of Camille. To [make] much of the exotic flavour that we found in the Tomine work, I had to adapt it to a district in Paris that had that same exotic feeling. And that’s the 13th District.'
Was that difficult to structure in the script?
JA: 'The idea was to have a movie with different stories, but knowing that at some point they will all be joined together. Maybe the difficulty was to find a way to smooth all these different stories, and that’s the beauty of the work of a scriptwriter. The risk when you’re building a movie like this is that one story might be more interesting than the other.'
Left to right: Lucie Zhang, Noémie Merlant and Makita Samba as Emilie, Nora and Camille. Photo: Shanna Besson
I also love that you decided to make the movie in black and white.
JA: 'The idea was to make [the film] in Paris, a city that has been used and documented in a lot of movies, but make it [so] that it’s not easily recognisable and the black and white was just a part of it'.
And was it essential for it to be in black and white? It couldn’t be told in any other way?
JA: 'It was not that it was essential, but the story told itself in black and white. Black and white can create a story that is really, highly modern. It’s the colour of classic movies as well, so there’s that link with the past. As you know, we shot the movie during lockdown so people couldn’t go out without masks. And when I was shooting in the streets, people were walking without [masks] because we had them tested before. That, with the black and white, made me feel as if I was doing a period movie.'
Photo: Shanna Besson
The film’s not set during a pandemic, but you can sense that it’s capturing a lot of the moods and a lot of the feelings that a lot of us have felt during the pandemic: about being disconnected from other people. I’m also interested in how technology is used to bridge that gap. What role did technology play in the film for you?
JA: 'I wanted to make a movie on love discourse. Checking at what point we are, today, with love discourse. When you look at the movie [My Night At Maud's], you can see certain specific love discourse. Move forward 40 years and what’s the impact of dating apps on that discourse? The paradox of the movie is that the people who know the highest level of intimacy in the movie [achieve it] through [a] computer.'
That’s what I liked about Amber Sweet’s character. I only realised this after I saw the film, but the bulk of her appearance is on a laptop screen. How did that filming process work?
Jehnny Beth: 'Jacques wanted us to do everything in real time, so there was no notion of an effect. We had a two-level flat. Noémie was downstairs with the whole team and Jacques and the big camera and her computer. And then I was upstairs on my own with my computer. I was just waiting on my bed all day! It was actually really nice because sometimes on a film set there’s like 20 people around you – you get used to it, but it can also feel intimidating – and I was alone. I think it helped to feel like I could just be myself.'
JA: 'It’s interesting to realise that we can make a movie entirely like that. Just a conversation.'
JB: 'Through a computer.'
Jehnny Beth as Amber Sweet. Photo: Shanna Besson
What was it about Paris, 13th District that made you want to take on this particular role?
JB: 'Two words: Jacques Audiard! I was a huge fan of Jacques’s work, obviously. [His 1996 film A Self-Made Hero] was one of my favourite films when I was a teenager. I watched all his films. And so I was very interested to get that experience because I knew it was gonna be a real learning experience, a different way of working than other directors.
'And also, while the character in itself was very good, I was not really known for doing characters that were sexy or having that sexuality. It was real trust from Jacques to allow me even to [be] cast. But the character, for me, is very modern. I felt that as a sex worker she’s really portrayed the way I know sex workers to be. It’s the character in the movie who’s the most stable, in a way, who’s not lying to herself about herself. She knows who she is and what she wants. That’s not usually how sex workers are portrayed. I thought that was new, and I hadn’t seen that character in movies before.'
Photo: Shanna Besson
I really love the shot – I think it represents the connection and disconnectedness in the film – of Merlant in bed with the laptop open. She’s kind of half-asleep, she’s also out-of-focus and the computer’s in focus. Technology is almost another character in the film.
JA: 'In the context of the relationship between these two women, technology is beautiful and virtuous. Amber is a professional. She knows how to use the camera, she’s a cam girl. And she’s teaching [Nora], in a kind and mellow way, how to use the computer in a sexy way.'
This is a very sexual film. But a lot of the sex is very unsatisfying, or at least the characters find the sex unsatisfying.
JA: 'I don’t agree that the characters were not having satisfaction from their sexual relations. Emilie, at least, believed in obtaining sexual pleasure. Her feelings caught up with her, and she was disappointed by her partner. She’s confused between sexual pleasure and relationships and love. At the beginning, she can’t dissociate. These are things you have to learn, and she learns them.'
JB: 'It’s interesting that films often tell you the opposite. Films often tell you that love and sex go together. And to actually talk about that difference is very unusual. It’s a great education, even for the audience, to talk about that aspect.'
Photo: Shanna Besson
I read that it was quite a detailed rehearsal process. You actually got a choreographer in.
JB: 'Yeah, she’s called Stéphanie Chêne. She was working with Makita, Lucie, Noémie and I. We [planned] for three months. Obviously, with the other characters, they had sexual scenes to work. So they worked with her on the body positions.
'I had my sessions on my own because Jacques said I had to. Cam girls, they’re almost their own directors. I worked with Stéphanie on position, objects, and how [Amber] would be lying down or sitting up. We watched a lot of cam girls [to] see how they do it, what accessories they use – it was really fun. It was a real group effort.
'I think, to be honest, every film should have that sort of three-month pre-work. And I wonder why people don’t do it more. Even the end scene when me and Noémie walk towards each other, the choreographer worked with us on that. How do we walk? How does Amber Sweet walk?
JA: 'I had in my mind that Emilie, for example, when she was going to her love appointment, she had to walk in a specific way. All of that needs to be thought and taught to her.'
I assume that was important when Emilie dances through the restaurant?
JA: 'Yes, yes. That was improvisation. I got bored of the way she was walking. I wanted her entrance in the restaurant [to be] a reflection of how she walked to go to her love appointment. If she just walked [normally], it was a bit boring.'
Photo: Shanna Besson
What were both of your favourite moments on set?
JA: 'The whole [thing]. It was a special moment because we were shooting during lockdown, and it was a pleasure to go to work in the morning. It was even a little bit sad coming back in the evening. The whole team was very enthusiastic.'
JB: 'For me, it would be the week before the shooting started. Jacques booked half a day in the theatre, and the whole cast was there – even the silent roles. And the whole technical team was watching. We did the whole movie from start to finish, like a Dogville style, with costumes and then there was [a] table, chair, bed, and sofa. And because it’s a comedy, it was great to be able to do it because you realise, "oh that bit is funny, I didn’t realise that would be funny." And also, to be able to see other people’s scenes and see the whole movie in one go… again, why don’t people do that more?'
Paris, 13th District will be in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema on Friday 18 March.