The Revision: Paris, 13th District

I want to be honest about not being a particular fan of Adrian Tomine. I liked the collection of his Optic Nerve minis, 32 Stories, but everything after that has left me cold. His art is good, if a little stiff sometimes, but it also feels like it’s too closely copying fellow cartoonists who inspired him. Likewise, his stories don’t feel like they’re populated by real people, but by ideas of what he thinks people are and subjects that will get him taken seriously. His women characters particularly suffer there. Women in these stories feel more like a collection of the “concepts of women” he’s gathered from movies, books, and other comics.

“Hawaiian Getaway,” from Summer Blonde, is about a listless young woman who ends up making prank phone calls to the payphone she can see outside her window. She’s been fired from her job at a call center and her roommate — with whom she had a brief sexual relationship — has moved out. She’s trying to balance family expectations as well as her own. I am honestly making it sound more interesting than it actually is. Hillary is unlikeable but not in a way that feels relatable, and it brings no insight into mid-20s angst.

The cover of Adrian Tomine's Killing and Dying

“Killing and Dying” from Killing and Dying, focuses on a teenage girl, Jesse, with a stutter who wants to pursue standup comedy. Her mother is dying of cancer and dies partway through the story. When Jesse’s standup comedy teacher isn’t writing her jokes, she’s really bad at it. There’s some subtext about how this is how she’s dealing with her mother’s illness and death and how it’s disconnected her from her father. Or something. It just comes across as cruel toward Jesse. The best thing I can say about this story is that I did like Tomine’s panel layout, with most pages featuring 16 small panels in an even grid. It did give the story a specific rhythm.

“Amber Sweet,” also from Killing and Dying is probably the best of the three here. A college student, who is never given her own name, is mistaken for a porn star named Amber Sweet, which in short, colors all her relationships, including one with a boyfriend, Ron, who turns out to be obsessed with Amber. Our unnamed protagonist eventually meets Amber Sweet and talks to her for a while. Amber, for her part, comes across as the most interesting character here. Everything here feels like by-the-numbers mid-2010s prestige indie comics. The page layouts don’t add to the rigid storytelling and his art is too clean and precise to be engaging.

Paris, 13th District (2021, directed by Jacques Audiard) is a loose adaptation of all three of these stories and weaves them together in one narrative. The movie focuses on the lives of Émilie (Lucie Zhang), Camille (Makita Samba), and Nora (Noémie Merlant) as they intersect.

Some plot points draw more strongly on the stories while other elements just seem like vague suggestions. The only contribution of “Killing and Dying” is that Camille’s sister does standup and his mother is dead. Elements of both “Hawaiian Getaway” and “Amber Sweet” do provide the core of the movie.

Émilie is basically Hillary from “Hawaiian Getaway,” with the same call center job she is fired from and the same Chinese background, but we get more insight into her character. Camille becomes her roommate and their short-lived sexual relationship causes tension for the rest of the time he is there. I liked seeing their relationship from beginning to end and Zhang does convey Émilie’s listlessness and sorrow. Samba is incredible as Camille, someone who is also balancing the pressures of his family and career in a way Émilie is oblivious to.

Probably the heart of the story pulls from “Amber Sweet” about the thirtysomething Nora who is returning to college after an absence. In an attempt to connect with her younger classmates, she dons a blonde wig and is mistaken at a party for cam girl, Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth). Her classmates spread the rumor and Nora eventually leaves school and joins Camille’s real estate office. Her ambivalent anger toward Amber Sweet actually turns into a friendship between the two women as they video chat and discuss their lives. Nora also begins a timid sexual relationship with Camille.

Merlant and Beth have great chemistry with each other even though most of their scenes together are just through a computer screen. They give Nora and Amber quiet loneliness that is soothed through their connection.

Émilie remains in the orbit of Camille and eventually reconnects with him. I wasn’t precisely sold on the rekindling of their relationship but I also feel like they came to understand the other in a more mature way in the end.

While Audiard is one of the screenwriters, I think most of the credit for this movie goes to Céline Sciamma and Léa Mysius. They both seemed to rightfully realize that if these stories were going to be about women, they needed to have full, inner lives and in Nora’s case, an actual name. I like that they deepened the relationship between Nora and Amber and gave Émilie a stronger, more playfully reckless personality. And while we only see a little of Camille’s sister, Eponine (Camille Léon-Fucien), the movie is much kinder toward her and her standup comedy ambitions.

I have often complained about men telling women’s stories and sometimes wonder how these stories would come across if they were reinterpreted by women. I like that that happened here. The writers took all the good parts of Tomine’s stories and turned them into something surprisingly thoughtful.