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For the third time, Romain Duris plays writer-amateur philosopher and practical romantic Xavier Rousseau in the writer-director Cédric Klapisch’s breezy and satisfying Chinese Puzzle (Casse-tête chinois), the third installment in the enjoyable if somewhat ambling trilogy that began with Duris’ character Xavier doing a postgraduate year in Barcelona in The Spanish Apartment (aka L’Auberge espagnole, aka Pot Luck, 2002) and then finding his feet as a writer in Russian Dolls (Les poupées russes, 2005). Now pushing 40, his marriage to Wendy (Kelly Reilly) a bust, and a father of two young children, Xavier moves to New York City to ensnare himself in the trilogy’s most baroque construction of romantic and emotional entanglements yet. The result is a pleasing walk in the park for all involved, not exactly profound, but appealing to both long term fans of the franchise and accessible to newcomers. Chinese Puzzle will easily solve the key to solvency with strong sales in France and tidy earnings from Francophiles abroad, especially when it hits ancillary. Cohen Media Group recently announced the release rights to the U.S.
All of three of the films were written and directed by Klapisch, who also made the comedy When the Cat’s Away (1996) and Paris (2008), a darker-hued ensemble piece. Because of the trilogy’s recurring cast of bed-hopping characters, their long-haul youth-to-maturity scope, and their essentially oh-so-French worldview — despite many excursions across borders — the trilogy have been likened, not always favorably, to François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films, a four-and-a-short film cycle, from The 400 Blows (1959) to Love on the Run (1979).
This trilogy is an altogether fluffier, light-hearted affair, lacking the emotional heft of Truffaut at his best. Nevertheless, Klapisch certainly likes to tip the wink to the Doinel series with Truffautian flashbacks here to the characters’ younger selves in the earlier version. He even has Xavier finally, after one marriage and many affairs and flirtations, reconnecting substantially with a woman he’s known since the beginning, à la Love on the Run. That closed circle construction suggests this might be the last go round for the characters, although there’s nothing in the plot to actually stop Klapisch from picking it up again in another 10 years, so long as Duris and his co-stars are available.
The fame in France of the supporting actors — especially Audrey Tautou, back playing Martine (Xavier’s original girlfriend in The Spanish Apartment) and Cecile de France as his longstanding buddy, the lesbian adventuress Isabelle – might explain why their characters seem to have substantially more screen time than in the previous installments, even though admittedly the emphasis throughout the series has been on how the complex root system of friends, family and lovers shapes Xavier’s life.
The event that gets the whole plot rolling here is Isabelle’s request that Xavier be the father of her baby so that she and her partner Ju (Sandrine Holt) can have a biological child together. Xavier’s English wife Wendy (Reilly), who was first his roommate in The Spanish Apartment and then the love interest in Russian Dolls, isn’t happy with the arrangement. Xavier and Wendy separate and then conclusively split up when she falls for a wealthy American John (Peter Hermann) and decides to go live with him in Manhattan. If he still wants to see his kids (Pablo Mugnier Jacob and Margaux Mansart) Xavier has no choice but to move to New York, although his accommodation options are much more limited than Wendy’s for financial reasons.
When sleeping on Isabelle and Ju’s couch starts to get awkward, Ju lets him rent the shabby apartment in Chinatown that she just happens to have lying around unoccupied. Xavier settles in and gets a job as a bicycle courier, leading to some reasonably interesting musings on New York’s streets heard in voiceover narration, echoing similar riffs on architecture and geography in the earlier films. But when his tourist visa runs out, he needs a more permanent solution to his residency and ends up marrying Chinese-American Nancy (Li Jun Li). Just to give all this skein of alliances and relationships one more tangle, Martine comes to visit with her own two kids in tow, thus rekindling the long dormant attraction between her and Xavier.
As before, Klapisch lightens the tone and keeps things bouncing along by deploying lots of effects-led trickery, like montages and slow-motion effects, as well as fantasy sequences done for laughs, such as Xavier’s little chats with the ghosts of philosophers Hegel and Schopenhauer, dispensing aphoristic nuggets of wisdom, adding an early Woody Allen vibe to the proceedings.
But there’s none of Allen’s only-sometimes-hidden disdain for ordinary people here, despite the highbrow references. Instead, Klapisch and his avatar Xavier have a genial affection for nearly everyone they meet, and that open-hearted embrace of plurality and difference, that inquisitive interest in other cultures, is one of the things that’s made the trilogy endearing. One of the low-key themes of The Spanish Apartment was a slightly starry-eyed celebration of EU harmony using a student apartment as a microcosm; Russian Dolls just extended that a little further to encompass Russia and the UK (part of the EU, but one of the Union’s more malcontent members). With its numerous Asian characters and polyglot Gotham setting, Chinese Puzzle goes global.
The cast all get to show off their comic chops for a change, and Duris in particular is as charming as ever, more likeable now that Xavier is a little less callow and a little less self-absorbed. There’s a palpable chemistry between him and his major co-stars, especially Tautou and de France, that feels exactly like that of old friends, picking up just where they left off.
Venue: London Film Festival (Laugh)
Opens: December 4 (in France)
Production: Ce Qui Me Meut
Cast: Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Kelly Reilly, Cécile De France, Sandrine Holt, Li Jun Li, Peter Herman
Director: Cédric Klapisch
Screenwriter: Cédric Klapisch
Producers: Cédric Klapisch, Bruno Levy
Executive producers: Raphaël Benoliel, Carol Cuddy
Director of photography: Natasha Braier
Production designer: Roshelle Berliner
Editor: Anne-Sophie Bion
Music: Christophe Minck
R rating, 117 minutes
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