Chinese Puzzle

The follow-up to Spanish Apartment and Russian Dolls sees our hero navigate his late 30s.
Tom Clift
Published on May 12, 2014


Somewhere, between the heady romantic drama of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise trilogy and the good-natured bawdiness of the American Pie franchise, sit the films of Cédric Klapisch. Released in 2002, Spanish Apartment first introduced us to Xavier Rousseau (Romain Duris), a French university student on exchange in Barcelona. Four years later, Russian Dolls picked up with Xavier again, as he continued to search for love and direction in an increasingly complicated world.

Chinese Puzzle turns the series into a trilogy, although Klapisch ensures the story is more or less accessible to newcomers. Now an author at the tail-end of his 30s, Xavier is marginally more mature than the last time we saw him, although no more lucky in the romance department. As a matter of fact, the film begins just in time for us to witness his marriage, to Englishwoman Wendy (Kelly Reilly), fall apart. When she takes their kids to live in Manhattan, Xavier decides to cross the Atlantic as well, crashing with his old friend Isabelle (Cécile de France) and her new girlfriend, Ju (Sandrine Holt), until he can find accommodation of his own.

As with the previous films, Klapisch keeps the tone buoyant, livening Xavier's voiceover musings — on life, love, family, ageing and the cultural stewpot in which all of us are ingredients — with plenty of visual whimsy. Xavier's hunt for an apartment unfolds through a montage of Google Map graphics, even as the ghosts of German philosophers pop by to offer him relationship advice. French DJs Loik Dury and Christopher Mink aka Kraked Unit provide the score, a joyously infectious mix of jazz, hip hop and soul.

For all its entertaining energy, Chinese Puzzle can feel rather messy. The film's multitudinous story threads — including a green-card marriage scheme, sperm donation and Xavier's lingering affection for his old girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou) — frequently get tangled up, or are left idle for long stretches of time. Meanwhile, at least one major subplot, involving Isabelle's attractive babysitter (Flore Bonaventura), gets no resolution at all.

Then again, perhaps the film's lack of direct drive is a reflection of its protagonist's headspace. Xavier is by no means perfect, but he has only the best intentions and is difficult not to root for. Likewise, Chinese Puzzle is so breezy and charming that it's easy to overlook its faults.


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