0476 | Casse-tête Chinois (Chinese Puzzle)

This 2013 film is the third entry in  Cédric Klapisch’s ‘Spanish Apartment’ trilogy, following the earlier comedy/dramas Pot Luck (aka The Spanish Apartment) and Russian Dolls, both of which I’ve watched recently. The series has followed the life and loves of Xavier (Romain Duris), a writer who has endured several ups-and-downs during the 16-years depicted, and it’s one that has gradually shed cast members while retaining a few core characters, who all feature again here. It has also served as a celebration of multiculturalism in cities and cross-border and cross-cultural relationships, loosely examining globalisation as the story flits between France, Spain, England, Russia and the United States, where New York’s Chinese community is foregrounded (with individual characters, Chinatown as a location and a Chinese multinational company as an unlikely plot influencer here). In the first film Xavier spent time in a shared house in Barcelona that was filled with students from various European countries; he ditched Parisian girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou), lusted after Belgian roommate Isabelle (Cécile de France) and helped English friend Wendy (Kelly Reilly) out of a sticky situation. The second film jumped back-and-forth between Paris, London and St. Petersburg as Wendy and Xavier fell in love, concentrating partly on Wendy’s brother’s marriage to a Russian ballerina. Chinese Puzzle begins several years later and the characters are all now pushing 40. Xavier’s inner doubts about companionship and his career are still present and causing him considerable unhappiness. We discover at the start that Wendy and Xavier married, had two kids, but are now divorced. She has met someone else and is moving to New York, so the impulsive Xavier follows to be near his children. Coincidentally Isabelle has recently taken a new job on Wall Street, and has set up home with her partner Ju (Sandrine Holt), which initially gives Xavier a place to lay his head. The story leans heavily towards his struggle to establish himself in the US as well as his changing relationships with family and friends: first he works illegally as a bike courier, then he employs a rather dodgy lawyer to thrash out custody issues, and finally he sets about gaining residency. The answer to his problems appears to be an arranged marriage.

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Margot Mansart, Pablo Mugnier-Jacob and Romain Duris in Chinese Puzzle

This is the best film in the trilogy, partly because Klapisch approaches the themes he developed in earlier films in a more mature fashion, which is understandable given that he’s at least 15 years’ older than he was when he began. It’s far superior to the misfiring Russian Dolls; several members of the cast from Pot Luck were briefly and awkwardly shoehorned into that second film, but Klapisch takes the bold step of dispensing with most of them for Chinese Puzzle, refocusing on Xavier and the three women he is closest to. This works wonders and revitalises the series, plus it makes senseit’s common to see less and less of the friends we had fifteen, twenty years ago. The film can be approached in the same way you might approach the later entries in Richard Linklater’s Before series, even though it’s comparitively lighter. It certainly gives you the satisfying feeling when you’re brought up-to-speed on supposed events that took place in the lives of the characters between films.

The comic strand running through the three movies – one that often results in farce with several characters converging on one location at the same time – is present once again, but Klapisch manages to imbue this one with a bittersweet edge, and the story reflects on the effect of divorce on fatherhood as much as it amuses with its Gallic flights of fancy. The screenplay is also quietly perceptive, attempting to debunk the myth that big cities are inherently unfriendly places where goodwill is in short supply, though New Yorkers may find the film romanticises their city. There’s a satisfactory ending that ties the series together neatly, although we leave Xavier and co in the knowledge that the writer has repeatedly woven the theme of temporality into the three films, and that any happiness we may see on screen may be fleeting rather than lasting. I had my doubts after watching the second film as to whether I’d want to recommend the trilogy to people, because it certainly has its faults (as you can imagine from the description above the tone jumps around a lot, and it’s a cheesy old affair at times), but Klapisch deserves credit for getting rid of most of the more problematic elements by the end. It may have a self-obsessed character at its heart, but Duris is a likeable actor, and in each installment he has managed to sell Xavier as a good guy whose instinct is to help out others, whether they’re complete strangers or those he holds dear. No-one will hold these films up as masterpieces, but they’re optimistic and witty, and I’m kinda sad that I’ve finished the trilogy now. Which probably tells you all you need to know.

Directed by: Cédric Klapisch.
Written by: Cédric Klapisch.
Starring: Romain Duris, Kelly Reilly, Audrey Tautou, Cécile de France, Sandrine Holt.
Cinematography: Natasha Braier.
Editing: Anne-Sophie Bion.
Music:
Christophe Minck, Kraked Unit.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
117 minutes.
Year:
2014.

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