Starring: Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Cécile De France
Genre: Comedy/ Drama
Xavier (Duris) is 40 years old and concerned about just how complicated life always is, so much in fact that he decides to write a novel about it. While writing his novel he tries to sort his own complicated life out by moving from France to New York, where his ex-wife Wendy (Kelly Reilly) moved to, taking their two children with her. Also living in New York is Xavier’s close friend Isabelle (De France), and it was Xavier agreeing to donate the sperm so Isabelle and her girlfriend Ju (Sandrine Holt) could have a baby together that caused Xavier’s split with Wendy. Xavier tries to start a new life in New York, but every time he thinks he is simplifying things, things seem to get more complicated, especially when his former girlfriend Martine (Tautou) and her two children come to New York to visit Xavier.
Just like Richard Linklater’s Before films, Chinese Puzzle forms the final and third part in a series of films (the first two being Pot Luck and Russian Dolls) by Cédric Klapisch featuring the same main characters, in this case four. Now in Chinese Puzzle we have them ten years on at the age of forty and their lives are still as farcical and complex as before. There is certainly no need to have seen the first two films though; as the characters are very easy to get to know instantly, and with Russian Dolls being made in 2005, there is a lot to catch up for even those that have seen the first two films. I personally haven’t seen the first two, and that in no way hampered my enjoyment of what is an enjoyable, albeit very slight in substance, romantic comedy/ drama.
Though the plot is quite light on actual substance, Klapisch’s energetic direction and effective use of a variation of visuals make it nothing less than enjoyable. Also making up for the slight lack of emotional heft in the actual story is the fantastic performances; Romain Duris is never anything less than an extremely charismatic screen presence no matter what film he is in as far as I am concerned, and his performance in Chinese Puzzle is no exception. He once again gives a very physical performance, making Xavier a truly engaging protagonist. Likewise excellent support is provided by Audrey Tautou, Cécile De France and Kelly Reilly who, though always very much supporting players to Duris’ Xavier, add the necessary emotional heft to the slightly flimsy narrative.
The performances also keep the film grounded when sometimes Klapisch’s tendency to go for visuals and constant obsession with tourism video shots of New York (not to mention a slightly casual view on immigration fraud) threaten to take over completely.
The concept of a protagonist writing about their life in a book which is also essentially the story of the film is a lazy way of storytelling that has been done many times before, and though Klapisch effectively uses this for getting exposition out of the way, the playful awareness does continuously tread very near self-indulgent laziness. Thankfully the energetic visuals and excellent performances make up for the slight lack of substance in the very minimal story, and very cheesy (but in some ways satisfying) ending. Chinese Puzzle never really grips, but its natural confidence and charm certainly makes it very watchable from start to finish.
Despite finishing off his trilogy with a story that is light on substance and in some ways lazily written, Chinese Puzzle features a memorable protagonist brought to life by yet another superb performance from the always charismatic Romain Duris that makes for an effortlessly watchable and enjoyable charmer of a film.