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Chinese Puzzle (A Movie Review)

Updated: May 17, 2020

Chinese Puzzle

Chinese Puzzle


Starring Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Cécile De France, Kelly Reilly, Sandrine Holt, Flore Bonaventura, Jochen Hägele, Benoît Jacquot, Pablo Mugnier-Jacob, Margaux Mansart, Amin Djakliou, Clara Abbasi, Li Jun Li, Sharrieff Pugh, Peter McRobbie and Jason Kravits.

Screenplay by Cédric Klapisch.

Directed by Cédric Klapisch.

Distributed by Cohen Media Group.  117 minutes.  Rated R.

It’s not often that you find a French film which is set mostly in New York City.  It’s even less common for that film to be named Chinese Puzzle, since China does not play into the storyline at all. Chinese Puzzle is the name of a novel being written by the hero of the film.  It may or may not have something to do with the fact that he lives in Chinatown in New York.  He explains the title away as just an example of things seeming much more difficult than they end up being.

Of course, the international confusion has shown up before in Cédric Klapisch’s Spanish apartment trilogy.  The last film that featured these characters in 2004 was Russian Dolls, which was mostly in other parts of Europe and didn’t actually make it to Russia until a wedding in the last half hour or so.

That film and the first part of the trilogy – the 2002 art house hit L’Auberge Espagnole, (which was also not filmed in France, this one was in Barcelona, Spain) – spend most of their time looking at an everyman struggling writer named Xavier (Romain Duris).

Chinese Puzzle – in fact the whole trilogy (particularly the last two films) – is rather slight, but charmingly romantic.

Xavier is on a constant search for love and happiness.  It always seems to be just out of his grasp, despite the fact that he is always surrounded by women who seem to be crazy about him.  In fact, eventually the audience can’t help but wonder if maybe his constantly shifting love life has more to do with his own insecurities rather than the lack of interested women in his life.

In fact, quite a few times through Chinese Puzzle, Xavier explains his refusal to put himself on the line with a confused but defensive argument: “It’s complicated.”

Welcome to love and life Xavier.  It’s complicated.

Perhaps that sounds like a slam of the film, but it is not meant that way at all. Chinese Puzzle is just a look at the ups and downs of life and love, and Xavier is mostly a very pleasant tour guide.

After making the first two films of the series pretty close together, Klapisch seems to have had a very specific reason for waiting about a decade to revisit these characters.  They are all hitting their forties and life has changed.  Everyone has kids, ugly breakups, exes, business and lodging concerns.

At the end of Russian Dolls, Xavier had fallen for Wendy (Kelly Reilly), a beautiful Irish lass.  A decade on, they are married, have two kids, and feeling the strain.  As the film starts in Paris, Wendy announces she wants a divorce and that she has a job in New York and is taking the kids with her.

Xavier is a novelist struggling with his follow-up to a surprise bestseller.  His publisher is pushing him for finish, but Xavier misses his kids.  On a whim he decides to move to New York indefinitely to be with the kids and work on the book.

Luckily, his best friend, the saucy lesbian Isabelle (Cécile De France) has also moved to New York, and he crashes with her for a while, eventually moving in to the apartment of Isabelle’s girlfriend Ju (Sandrine Holt).

Chinese Puzzle takes on its charming, unhurried gait here.  Lots of things happen, a few just a tiny bit hackneyed – for example, Xavier must find an American woman to fake marry him for a green card, he agrees to donate his sperm so that Isabelle and Ju can have a child and he must cover when Isabelle gets into an affair.

Also, Xavier’s ex Martine (a luminous Audrey Tautou) visits New York with her children and they quickly fall back into a natural rapport.

Returning to these characters and their slightly frivolous problems is something of a surprise, after writer/director Klapisch has dealt recently in slightly weightier fare like Paris and My Piece of the Pie.  However, his filmmaking has only gotten stronger in the years since Russian Dolls, and these characters are all likable old friends by now.

Besides, Klapisch has always done a good job with whimsy as well – try and track down his luminous 1996 love song to Paris called When the Cat’s Away.

If their story ends with Chinese Puzzle, and as far as I know, Klapisch is not planning on extending this story beyond a trilogy, then it is ending on a nice, pleasant note.  Particularly if you have seen the first two films of the series, Chinese Puzzle is time well spent, but even if you are new to these character and this world, it’s worth the time.

Besides, like I said before, who knows the next time you find a New York-based film that is mostly in French?

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2014 All rights reserved. Posted: May 30, 2014.

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