Baptism of fire with Audiard

Paris, 13th District star Lucie Zhang on intimacy, acting techniques and Cannes high heels

by Richard Mowe

From left, Lucie Zhang, Noémie Merlant and Makita Samba. Zhang: 'To get in to the vibe I was given an apartment only five minutes away from where were were shooting'
From left, Lucie Zhang, Noémie Merlant and Makita Samba. Zhang: 'To get in to the vibe I was given an apartment only five minutes away from where were were shooting' Photo: Shanna Besson/Unifrance
Landing your first major film role at the age of 21 with such an icon of French cinema as Jacques Audiard could have proved daunting, especially with only minimal previous experience.

Lucie Zhang who has a dual French-Chinese background, managed to take it all in her stride in Paris, 13th District (Les Olympiades) which bowed at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and has been heralded at other international film events.

She plays Émilie, a graduate who has a job at a call centre and falls in love with Camille (played by Makita Samba), her male flatmate. She found their torrid intimate scenes together “more difficult to watch than to play”. She was concerned what her parents might think. “My mother was especially worried that my father would see the film because he is rather protective and traditional. I am afraid it might shock him..

Her parents run a Chinese restaurant in a different area of Paris. She spent more time there amid the heady aromas of cooking than she did at home. She grew up watching martial arts films such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and that gave her the impulse to think about an acting career. First she managed to complete a degree in management studies at University in Paris.

The film, shot in black and white, is based on a comic strip by American graphic novelist Adrian Tomine. Audiard who wanted explore contemporary love and desire against a culturally, racially and sexually diverse backdrop also worked on the script with director Céline Sciamma (Portrait Of A Lady on Fire) and hired one of the leads from that film, Noémie Merlant, to join his protagonists.

Lucie Zhang: 'Once we arrived on the red carpet it was fantastic and wonderful … just like a dream and very emotional. I am not used to high heels and I was terrified of falling over.'
Lucie Zhang: 'Once we arrived on the red carpet it was fantastic and wonderful … just like a dream and very emotional. I am not used to high heels and I was terrified of falling over.' Photo: Phlippe Quaisse/Unifrance
Zhang wasn’t allowed to read the original material by Audiard although the director relented just two days before the start of the shoot. She admits that at the beginning she carried out too much research and analysis. “By the end of the process I wasn’t fresh at all. Then Audiard gave me some tips: he told me you don’t necessarily need to be close to the character to give a good performance. You can be at a complete opposite to what the character is going through.

“We worked a lot together with the other cast members and with the director. And we had a coach for the intimacy scenes. It wasn’t too hard to forget the camera because the lighting is strong. To get in to the vibe I was given an apartment only five minutes away from where were were shooting although I was familiar with the place because I have friend who lives there.”

She relished getting to know her character of Émilie, a young woman struggling to hold on to a job and not fall in love with her flat-mate. "During the pandemic, we were a lot more alone, and closed and isolated. So maybe that brought this type of emotion in the characters, unconsciously," Zhang says.

And what was it like working with the legendary Audiard? “I supposed I wasn’t too overawed because to be honest I didn’t know anything about him at all. I was not cultivated in cinema, and specifically French cinema. There was no time to be scared because he works so fast. During the preparation, however, I watched everyone of his films. I like the way he explores the human side of his characters. His films are touching and moving, but in particular I appreciated Read My Lips (Sur mes lèvres) and Rust And Bone (De rouille et d’os).”

Audiard’s stature became self evident to her when she attended the world première at the Cannes Film Festival last July. She recalls: “Once we arrived on the red carpet it was fantastic and wonderful … just like a dream and very emotional. I am not used to high heels and I was terrified of falling over. Once inside that huge theatre I just forgot everyone else in the room and concentrated on the performance. I could feel the reaction to the film and that was amazing.”

  • Read what Audiard told us about love and sex in lockdown.

Paris 13th District is on selected release through Curzon from 18 March. Richard Mowe interviewed Lucie Zhang during the 24th UniFrance Rendezvous with French Cinema in Paris. US release through IFC Films from 15 April

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