The third film in French Director Cedric Klapisch’s trilogy is called Chinese Puzzle. The first was released in 2002 and was called (in English) The Spanish Apartment (in French – L’Auberge Espagnole). That film is described in IMDB as follows:
A strait-laced French student moves into an apartment in Barcelona with a cast of six other characters from all over Europe. Together, they speak the international language of love and friendship.
Klapisch followed up in 2005 with a film called Russian Dolls aka Les Poupées Russes. The characters were five years older, supposedly smarter, and they now lived in and around St. Petersburg, Russia.
Eight years later, in 2013, Klapisch directed this film, Chinese Puzzle. The main character Xavier is now at just about 40 years of age, and already has a successful best-selling novel to his credit.
In case you were wondering, I have not seen the first two in this trilogy, and I’ll state up front that this film holds up well enough as a stand alone viewing experience.
Here is the brief précis to get you acclimated about what the film is about:
A 40-year-old father’s life is complicated when the mother of his two children moves to New York. Since he can’t bear them growing up far away from him, he decides to move there as well.
Of course that is a simplification. As the lead character will tell us later in the film – life is complicated. How complicated might that be?
I’ll answer that by giving you a short list of the main characters:
Xavier Rousseau is played winningly by French star Romaine Duris. Mr. Duris is 41 years old and already has 42 acting credits. He’s a leading man type, seemingly perpetually in need of a shave. He easily slides into a niche occupied on one end by Humphrey Bogart and on the other end by Ethan Hawke.
In his own words from the film – Xavier will tell us that his wife has left him and moved to New York to live with another man, AND has taken his children with her. Using his seed, Xavier has had a baby with a lesbian couple, he marries a Chinese woman in New York in order to get a green card and the right to work in New York. His old flame from the earlier films in the trilogy arrives in New York with HER children and takes up residence with him. Meanwhile, the Immigration people in New York are keeping close tabs on him.
Using the apartment in Chinatown that was conveniently provided by one of the lesbians, Xavier will have to find his way. He’s going to work as a bicycle messenger, finish his next novel, and decide what he wants, what makes him happy, and who does he want to be happy with the most.
As Xavier says, Yes (or oui), life is complicated.
But the film is not a fish out of water tale, or in this case a displaced guy from Paris struggling in New York. No one is severely depressed or angst-ridden. In fact, all of the characters from Xavier, to Wendy (Kelly Reilly) his British wife who left for the greener grasses of New York,
Isabelle (Cecile De France) – the French lesbian who bears his child or her Chinese American lover Ju Wo played Sandrine Holt all seem reasonably together (as in composed) and stable.
Xavier’s past lover, Martine is played by Audrey Tautou who was unforgettable as Amelie, is once again teamed with Duris, and it , or rather they, still work.
Now before I forget – let’s give a shout out to Li Jun Li who plays Xavier’s Chinese American bride Nancy, and Peter McRobbie, a veteran USA character actor who has appeared in such diverse films as Lincoln, Spider-Man 2, and Brokeback Mountain, here is the scowling and scary Immigration Service case officer.
But wait = there’s more. We have a voice-over narration by Xavier which mysteriously disappears in the second half. Then there’s Martine who is trying to do a deal with Chinese businessmen about Chinese teas. This takes place in a New York board room, is totally in Chinese, and without subtitles. Isabelle has a dalliance on the side, Xavier goes for a store front divorce lawyer, Wendy’s new boyfriend has a swank apartment on Central Park South, and both New York and Paris get shorted in terms of having a series of masterfully framed and idyllic cityscape views.
To top it off, there’s a near farcical closing scene, where everyone ends up in the same place. Doors don’t exactly slam shut, and men aren’t seen escaping from bedrooms carrying their pants in hand = but we aren’t all that far away from those kind of true farcical elements.
Klapisch has a sure hand, and though it seems that here and there he loses his way, some how he ties it up quite nicely. Xavier’s editor, still working in Paris, has screamed at Xavier that the new novel absolutely cannot have a happy ending. But Klapisch ignores that plea, and goes the other route.
We smile, and more than occasionally, we laugh out loud. There’s a certain whimsical element to the film that despite a few hiccups or flaws, which include visits by philosophers Hegel and Schopenhauer ( a directorial gambit if there ever was one) this movie can be called delightful and can be given a three-point seven-five rating with a recommendation. Available on Netflix.