Jacques Audiard’s Les Olympiades (2021) is adapted from three stories by beloved Californian comics artist and illustrator Adrian Tomine.  At every point the comics and their film adaptation intersect, Audiard and his script collaborators (directors Céline Sciamma and Léa Mysius) take what is open-ended, deadpan, allusive, ambivalent, rebarbative, discomfiting, emotionally complex, stylistically heterogeneous, and artistically distinctive in Tomine, and turn it into something closed, gushing, literal, obvious, seductive, painless, emotionally simple-minded, visually homogenous and artistically smug.

To give a sense of how the film short-changes its sources, look at the first story.  The opening narrative adapts ‘Hawaiian Getaway’ from the collection Summer Blonde (2002).  Like most of Tomine’s protagonists, Hillary Chan’s inhibitions, diffidence, poor body image and general self-loathing are distorted into a public persona that is hostile and even unpleasant.  Sacked from a call-centre job for mocking the clients, harangued by her mother for failing to be a good Taiwanese daughter; and bruised by often toxic relationships with obnoxious men, Hillary spends much of her now-free time making abusive crank calls from her high-rise flat to passers-by answering a public phone below.  Hillary’s assertive actions and self-presentation – she narrates and is announced as ‘starring in’ her own story – is complicated and undercut by Tomine’s visual presentation of her vulnerability through framing, elision, and composition.  

Audiard and his collaborators keep much of this overarching framework, but mitigate its tone by casting charismatic Lucie Zhang as the Hillary figure, here renamed Émilie, a charmingly infuriating pixie in the Amélie mode rather than the alienated figure depicted by Tomine.  They also make several structural changes, the most radical of which is to take a late two-panel flashback, wherein Hillary and her new flatmate engage in a brief but brutally curtailed sexual relationship, and make it the starting point of the film.  

The film contrasts the outward, even aggressive self-confidence of Émilie and her flatmate Camille (Makita Samba) with inner pain caused by family, work, politics, and history.  Such an ‘explanation’ of the characters’ possible motivations, however, undermines one of the apparently progressive aspects of the film – its celebration of Great Casual Sex.  The blank misery and even malevolence of many Tomine characters generally derives from their failure to have sex, or from having bad, even abusive sexual relationships.  This is not a problem in Los Olympiades where photogenic hotties – replacing Tomine’s often dumpy, unprepossessing and impassive figures – grapple in long, sculpturally lit, meticulously choreographed encounters (albeit encounters in which the actresses, as per usual in French auteur cinema, take all the risks).  The film’s most stylistically rapturous moments relate to Great Casual Sex – Émilie’s slo-mo, post-coital dancing in a supermarket or the Chinese restaurant where she works, or running in the rain to Rone’s electro score, high on ecstasy, as she chants ‘Camille, Camille’.    

The pleasure Émilie and Camille take in physical sex thus co-exists with psychic pain.  Maybe the Great Casual Sex isn’t so great after all.  Maybe all the sleeping around is making Émilie and Camille more unhappy.  Maybe what they need is monogamy in a heteronormative couple.  Which is what the film offers in a cute ending that could have been written by Richard Curtis rather than Tomine or Sciamma.  Where Hillary is left hanging at the end of ‘Hawaiian Getaway’ – uncertain whether her apparent soulmate is going to call for her or not, and ultimately retreats into disturbing memories of family friction, curling up foetus-like into a suitcase – Émilie gets her happy resolution, winning her man on her own terms.

Distrust of Great Casual Sex is certainly at the core of the third story in the film.  Based on ‘Amber Sweet’ from Killing and Dying (2015), its unnamed female narrator is a college student mistaken by her horrible peers for a famous ‘cam-girl’ and adult entertainer, and viciously slut-shamed.  The film replaces the unreliability of the protagonist’s (and Tomine’s) narration – which is displaced onto Émilie and the truth status of some of her episodes – with a sweetly sincere love story, and a character study of an abused and ostracised woman’s spiritual reconstruction.  Where great physical sex is a barrier to true emotional connection in the story of Émilie and Camille, here it is the avoidance of physical sex that results in ‘true’ love.  Named Nora (Noémie Merlant) in the film, the maligned mature student quits college and seeks out Amber Sweet, née Louise (Jehnny Beth) via her porn site.  A relationship develops between the pair, online, based on mutual respect, comfort, and affection.  When they finally meet ‘in real life’, neither Nora nor the film can cope, the one fainting, and the other leaving the couple for good.  In a hostile world where everyone looks and is looked at, being unseen except by one’s lover is probably the best means of survival.  

Les Olympiades is most interesting for Audiard’s engagement with the visual specifics of the comics form and the difference between still and moving frames.  The film is rich in grids and internal frames derived from the anonymous architecture that echoes the spreads of Tomine’s comics; while several frames in Tomine are reproduced faithfully.  The occasional Expressionist flourish of the black-and-white ‘Hawaiian Getaway’ finds echoes in some startling scenes in Les Olympiades, such as Nora’s nocturnal groping for her fateful wig in an apartment that appears to be subjected to searchlight.  Tomine’s ‘could-be-anywhere’ post-modern Californian spaces are matched by Audiard’s ‘could-be-anywhere’ Paris, which is compared by one character to Shanghai.  The decision to shoot the whole film in monochrome means that the use of colour in Tomine’s later stories, often influenced by forms of advertising and social media, are inevitably lost; nevertheless, Audiard marks that loss with one colour sequence.  As the first part of Émilie and Camille’s story closes and Nora and Louise’s begins, Amber Sweet sings ‘Happy Birthday’ to an online john as if performing a religious ritual.  It is a misleading yet affecting moment of calm before the devastating storm.

Of course, an artist of Audiard’s stature is under no obligation to stay faithful to his source material, and can do what he likes.  It’s just that most of the changes he makes to the comics result in something bland and unchallenging.  Where Tomine can make you freeze and think anxiously about your own life choices, Les Olympiades is warm and comforting as a hot cup of cocoa and a pair of old slippers. Just the ticket after a binge watch of, say, Emily in Paris

Les Olympiades (Paris, 13th District, 2021 France, 97 mins)

Prod Co: Page 114 & France 2 Cinéma Prod: Jacques Audiard & Valérie Schermann Dir: Jacques Audiard Scr: Jacques Audiard, Céline Sciamma, & Léa Mysius, based on the comics ‘Hawaiian Getaway’, ‘Killing and Dying’, and ‘Amber Sweet’, by Adrian Tomine Phot: Paul Guilhaume Ed: Juliette Welfling, Paul Machliss, & Jonathan Amos Prod Des: Mila Preli Mus: Rone

Cast: Lucie Zhang, Makita Samba, Noémie Merlant, Jehnny Beth

About The Author

Darragh O'Donoghue is an archivist at Tate and a contributing writer for Cineaste. He recently completed a PhD on the Stephen Dwoskin Archive at the University of Reading, and contributed to the 'Beyond Bollywood' event at Tate Modern in April 2022.

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