Tuft of Fluff: Klapisch Bids Adieu to Globetrotting Crew
Diehard fans of Cedric Klapisch’s L’Auberge espagnole (2002) and its sequel, Russian Dolls (2005) should be happy to see the director round out his Romain Duris headlining films into an actual trilogy with Chinese Puzzle. Though it potentially stands as a piece on its own, audiences may feel a bit lukewarm toward this outing without having experienced the meandering yet considerable baggage the quartet of main characters have carried through two other films. Coasting mostly on the affable charm of its stars and likeable characters, this final chapter manages to walk a fine line between hopeful and melancholy as we at last leave them all behind. However, the most potent aspect of the film is perhaps the nostalgia one might feel as they’re forced to recollect the wonderful, scrappy charm of that first entry from over a decade ago.
Now nearing or entering their 40s, Xavier (Roman Duris) and his British wife Wendy (Kelly Reilly) seem to be living a rather happy existence in Paris with their two children. But when Xavier offers to father a child for his best bud Isabelle (Cecile De France) and her Chinese American partner Ju (Sandrine Holt), it appears to be a catalyst for many more disagreements to come between the couple. Suddenly, Wendy announces she has fallen in love with someone in New York and will be taking the children to live there with her. Seeing as Isabelle and Ju also reside there, Xavier decides to uproot himself and move there as well in order to be close to his children. Struggling to make ends meet, a stroke of luck finds him an eligible wife, Nancy (Li Jun Li), who will marry Xavier in order to make him a citizen. While Xavier navigates through new circumstances, his old girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou), now with two children of her own, pops in for a visit from France, rekindling old feelings.
Older doesn’t necessarily mean wiser, it seems, as Duris’ Xavier is just as hapless nearing middle age as he was a young man. There is a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants air about all three of these films, something that worked wonders when all of these people were young adults, but here reaches a crescendo of a comedy of errors that sometimes border on outright turpitude, as if it were to crumble away if the film were to take itself too seriously. And so, it might. It’s easy to compare this trilogy to similar decades spanning projects such as Truffaut’s famed Doinel series or even Linklater’s Before trilogy. Obviously, Klapisch isn’t going for the same sort of resonance so it’s rather unfair (and crippling) to really compare them.
Instead, Duris and company engender a similar magic akin to the characters in Armisted Maupin’s Tales of the City novels, where neighbors became lifelong friends, warmly and fiercely connected, building a small community and worldview for themselves. It’s too bad that Xavier/Duris’ worldview is still a bit slapdash here, the title of his novel reflecting his crazy, nonsensical life, crafting a novel that has all the pretentious trappings of a high school adolescent’s point of view. Life can sure be crazy, blah blah blah. Thus, Chinese Puzzle feels more of a way for all to bring closure to a film that helped establish the leads as successful stars, with L’Auberge espagnole riding in on the Audrey Tautou craze after Amelie (2001).
Here, all key players feel a bit muted, even as some of them are treated to more screen time, which is a surprise considering Cecile De France won a Cesar for the first and second films. Duris’ Xavier is as charming as ever, and goofing around with Tautou and De France feels genuine—if only they weren’t continually being plopped into contrived circumstances. Still, the divergent storylines across three films still manages to be a successful and worthy endeavor, especially in comparison to Klapisch’s similarly structured and incredibly schlocky 2008 film, Paris, which also headlined Duris.
Reviewed on April 24 at the 2014 City of Lights City of Angels (COLCOA) Film Festival. 117 Minutes.