Many directors are wary of working outside of their native language, but Jacques Audiard is learning to embrace it. In 2018, he made his English-language debut with the Western “The Sisters Brothers,” and while he followed that up with a return to France for the anthology drama “Paris, 13th District,” even as that movie opens in the U.S. he has another international project on the horizon.
“I think it was Truffaut who said that our current films are always working against the previous films we’ve made,” Audiard said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I’m not sure I agree with that.”
Earlier this year, Audiard went to Mexico to scout for “Emilia Perez,” a Spanish-language musical-comedy written with French singer-songwriter Camille about a drug mule who changes their gender. That may sound like a big gamble for the director of muscular redemption stories like “A Prophet,” “Rust and Bone,” and “Dheepan.” However, with “The Sisters Brothers” and now “Paris, 13th District,” Audiard has been drifting in new directions a lot lately.
“For the longest time, I’ve had the greatest desire to make a film like it’s my first film, as if the first film is a genre in it of itself,” he said. “It’s a film that really lets itself get loose, that is perhaps less formal or sticking to a formal kind of spirit, a little freer, lighter, youthful. And it’s also a film full of defects.”
That’s “Paris, 13th District,” a black-and-white adaptation of graphic novelist Adrian Tomine’s short stories that transports them to the City of Love. The movie drifts through a series of seriocomic encounters that amount to a collage of contemporary youth culture. Its ensemble includes Lucie Zhang as a Taiwanese partier whose dalliances with various men becomes problematic when one of them is her roommate, and that same roommate’s own fling with a failed academic (Noémie Merlant), who enters into her own strange relationship online with a sex worker. A jagged scrapbook of neurotic characters and offbeat romantic entanglements, “Paris, 13th District” feels like the work of a totally different filmmaker than the 69-year-old auteur.
“For the longest time, I wanted to make a film that was a love story,” Audiard said. “This is something that’s been percolating in my mind for a long time. I really wanted to take the characters and find a way of bringing them all together and uniting them so their stories intersect.”
That opportunity was aided by the two screenwriters on the project. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” director Céline Sciamma wrote the first draft, which was later updated by Léa Mysius, who made her debut with 2017’s “Ava” (her sophomore effort, “The Five Devils,” is expected at Cannes this year). “There were some cases where Léa proposed things that never would’ve occurred to me, that perhaps we might call — in quotation marks — a more ‘feminine’ view of those things,” Audiard said.
Audiard said he was also concerned about shooting the movie’s sex scenes through the lens of a male gaze. “It was something that made uncomfortable,” he said. “My actors had two coaches that they worked with. It’s their input into the scene and not something directed by me. The actors worked very closely with each other and their coaches away from me on these scenes to the point where they really chose what they wanted to do and how they wanted to represent it through their characters.” However, Audiard did mandate the dialogue that takes place during those scenes. “These are people who talk, they talk all the time, even while making love,” he said. “I just wanted that to be funny.”
When “Paris, 13th District” premiered at Cannes last year, it marked a return for Audiard to the festival’s venerated competition, where he won the Palme d’Or for “Dheepan.” When “The Sisters Brothers” came out, however, the filmmaker said he would never screen another film in that section of the festival. “I don’t feel the need to be in competition anywhere,” he said at the time.
So what changed? “I think COVID had a lot to do with it,” Audiard said. “Cannes was canceled, and then the next year it was postponed to July. Within that time, I had the opportunity to revisit this. I just have to learn to stop. At some point, I have to give up my spot for the next generation.”
But Audiard isn’t slowing down. “Emilia Perez” was initially planned as his next project after “The Sisters Brothers,” but the pandemic made it difficult to plan a production outside of France. Initially, Audiard envisioned the Mexican project as an opera, but was talked out of it when a musician friend said that he would have to write an hour and a half of music. “He said, ‘You don’t really want to do that,’” Audiard said.
The international approach is ambitious for a revered filmmaker whose country invests serious money in film production, far more than anywhere in North America. He acknowledged the risk. “It’s a complicated situation,” Audiard said. “If you look at film production in other countries in Europe, for example, Spain or Italy, cinema is always dead there. There’s not a lot of production going on because they don’t have that kind of protective aspect that our government has enacted for us. This all must sound very strange in the United States.”
He wasn’t averse to working with Netflix, which recently committed to investing $45 million annually in French productions, despite his reservations about what it could mean for the future of theatrical releases. “My history and culture of cinema is really cinema seen in a theater with an audience and sharing that whole experience,” he said. “But as far as how I set up my own projects — who’s to say where my next film will find up down the road?”
However, he did expect to head home after his Mexican project wrapped. “I actually wouldn’t mind doing a sequel to ‘Paris, 13th District,'” he said.
IFC Films releases “Paris, 13th District” in theaters and on various VOD and digital platforms on Friday, April 15.