Paris, 13th District is the latest film from French director Jacques Audiard. Coming off of his English language debut The Sisters Brothers, an American western starring Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilley, Audiard couldn’t have made a more different follow up. Back in his native language and country, Paris, 13th District sees the filmmaker collaborating with the likes of Celine Sciamma and Léa Mysius. Alongside them is Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire leading actress Noémie Merlant, who rounds out an impressive cast of actors.
Noémie Merlant has worked in France’s film industry for many years, but it was her role in Portrait of a Lady on Fire that catapulted her to the international stage. Since then, Merlant has acted in such films as Jumbo, A Good Man, Mi Iubita Mon Amour, and now, Paris, 13th District. Arguably, Merlant gives her best performance since Portrait of a Lady on Fire and has gained further acclaim since Audiard’s film premiered at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.
I recently sat down with Noémie Merlant before the release of Paris, 13th District, in US cinemas, to talk about the film, Nora’s character and how her character’s relationship with a virtual acquaintance is almost more potent than the real, physical connections shared in the film. Our conversation was a fascinating mix of French and English as Merlant dove deep into the motivations behind her choices when making Paris, 13th District.
Ben Rolph: Hi Noemie, thanks for talking to me today. I wanted to, first, ask you how you got involved in Paris, 13th District?
Noemie Merlant: At the beginning, it was Christel Baras, the casting director, who also worked on Portrait of a Lady on Fire, that got me on the project. She was looking for two actresses to play this pair that is in the film and actresses that resemble each other. So, she brought us together, but it was during the first lockdown. So it was not really your typical kind of casting. We all did self taping, on our own, and we were together virtually. And through that process, we had went through Christel to Jacques [Audiard]. Then, in the end, we actually were able to meet face to face.
BR: What was it about Nora’s character that attracted you to the role?
NM: I have always been really attracted by characters like this. Characters who are very feminine, but who are also quite complex and who are a combination of fragility, and strength at the same time. They all have this desire really to connect with their own desires and what they want, be it in love or in their profession, or in their work life. Also, to move away from the traditional patriarchal, kind of, schema that we have in society. So for me, this was what was attractive about this character, I was very touched by her as I was really by the whole film.
BR: Was there much of a research process for you in discovering the world and experience that Nora goes through in the film?
NM: My parents are real estate agents, so I know a lot about this world. In the movie, Nora works for a little agency. Before making the film, I made my parents read the script because of the real estate aspect and my parents actually live in the 13th district, where we shot the film. So, I showed them the script and in some scenes where my character works in the agency, I asked Jacques to change a little based on the way my mother talks. The agents themselves are often very criticized in real life. But I really wanted to show what my mother loved about her job and how she enjoyed relating to the people that she was working with. This was important for me to do.
In regards to Amber and the online world, I knew a little bit about it already. But since my character discovers it for the first time during the film, I didn’t want to see and know too much about it. Even if sometimes when Jehnny [Beth] and Jacques were talking about this, I wanted to hear and know more about it, but I wanted to stay a little bit distanced from it so that I could discover it during shooting.
BR: You’ve talked a bit about how you went about performing but was there much rehearsing done during and before production with Jacques?
NM: We actually did a lot of rehearsals, actually the most rehearsals that I’ve ever done for any film that I’ve worked on. And I really enjoyed it, I found that it was a very enjoyable process. We rehearsed in a number of different ways. First, we would rehearse a lot, even prior to the actual meeting on stage and rehearsing together. Then we had a rehearsal where Léa Mysius, who was the co-screenwriter, worked with us. At that point, we were able to have input in case things needed to be changed, or reworked a little bit, we were able to do it when she was present. Jacques really made it a point of honor when he was working with us to emphasize the fact that this was really a comedy. And that it was really important because it was a comedy to find the rhythm of the comedy and the rhythm for the characters.
For me, he really emphasized my need to be more like an Annie Hall kind of character. She is a girl who comes from the provinces, but she’s in Paris, so her rhythm is slightly out of sync with the normal Parisian rhythms. She’s a little bit clumsy, she’s a little bit slow. So, all of those things played a part in developing my character. Also, we rehearsed with the film’s choreographer, who worked with us not on any of the spoken parts of what we did, but only with our bodies. Here, the work was really to try to see how do these characters actually live in their bodies? How do their gestures relate to their physical selves? How do they move because every individual has a different way of moving? How do they walk? Then, of course, there were the sex scenes. So, there again, we worked on the movement, and in particular, for me, it was in the scenes with Camille, how do I convey the idea that I don’t really want to do this without actually saying anything. So, by doing it physically through my body that became something that we worked on as well. Also, when Jehnny and I met face to face, there again, that was something that was very important. I also want to mention that Jacques did something that is very rarely done, he rented a regular theatre and we had a regular run through in a theatre, on stage, of the entire film. This brought together all the actors and all of the crew, which was a way to see how our part fit into the whole and to really get an overall idea of what the film was like, this is something very atypical but it was very helpful for us.
BR: That’s really interesting, can you talk a little bit about Nora’s connection with Amber? Their relationship is quite fascinating and, to me, it felt more real than some of the actual physical relationships, do you see their relationship in such a way?
NM: What’s really important for me is that my character’s virtual connection is the most sincere and real connection that she has in the film. I think that this idea is really important that you can have this kind of an intimate connection the way Nora does, where she and Amber really enter into each other through the medium of the screen. I think this really highlights a positive aspect of the virtual world because, in the film, you also have the very negative side of social media. Nora’s character is well reserved, perhaps this would not have been the kind of connection that she would have made had it not been virtual and maybe she just wouldn’t have met Amber, in person, so I think that it’s really a very beautiful metaphor, this idea that you are able to have this intimacy and connection both virtually with someone else but also with yourself.
Also, Jacques often talks about the fact that nowadays everything goes so quickly. This is true of the way that people meet each other, that this is all something that’s very speeded up. It’s almost contrary of the traditional film where you would have people talk first and make love second. Nowadays, you make love first. And after you’re finished with that, then you sit down and you have a conversation. This is something that the virtual really turns on its head because, in this virtual world, the relationship between Nora and Amber has time to develop through the conversations that they have, before they reach the moment where it becomes an intimate relationship. So in a way, it harkens back to the older idea of the conversation preceding the lovemaking. I think that it’s something that’s really very relevant because you have people who are living solitary lives, and in their solitude, they’re looking to make connections, they’re looking to connect with others. Something positive about the virtual is that in a time when things go so fast, there are greater possibilities because we have this virtual way of doing things. It also, in effect, enables us to get past the traditional, patriarchal hierarchies. So, I think that, basically, when I look at it, this is a film really about reinventing love in a way where it’s through connection, not only with yourself, with your own ideas, but also connections with others.
Paris, 13th District is in theaters and available to rent on VOD now.