Chinese Puzzle

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<i>Chinese Puzzle</i>

The U.S. public may not have clamored for Chinese Puzzle, a sequel to two playful French comedies about entering and coming to terms with adulthood. Fortunately, that doesn’t matter. At it’s best, this movie is pure fun. Those ignorant or forgetful of its predecessors might miss some references, but they won’t have a problem enjoying its warmth, energy and humor.

French writer/director Cédric Klapisch continues his screwball odyssey of self-discovery that started with 2002’s L’Auberge Espagnole and continued five years later in Russian Dolls (2005). Each film focuses on writer Xavier (Romain Duris) as he discovers a new part of the globe while discovering himself. His life continues to revolve around three women played by Audrey Tautou, Cécile De France and Kelly Reilly.

When Chinese Puzzle finds them, they’re facing 40 and again trying to make sense of life’s conundrums. Xavier, who narrates the story via the novel he’s writing, has earned some notoriety in Paris’s literary world. However, his 10 years of personal contentment end when his wife, Wendy (Reilly), tells him that she’s leaving him for an American man and moving to New York City with their two kids. So he moves there to keep in contact with his kids and crashes with his friend Isabelle (De France), a pregnant lesbian for whom he served as a sperm donor. As he settles in and tries to navigate the country’s divorce and citizenship laws, his ex-girlfriend, Martine (Tautou), starts visiting him while she’s in town for business.

The matter of a small art film spawning an unlikely series of sequels naturally brings to mind Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise and its two sequels, including last year’s Before Midnight. There are plenty of thematic similarities, as both trilogies (well, for now they’re trilogies) check in on their characters’ worldviews and romances during different stages of their lives. Tonally, however, there’s a drastic gulf. Before Sunrise’s confined time limit made it more mysterious—it actively incites curiosity about what happened after the brief, magical moment shown in the film. That’s not an issue with Xavier’s story, as the hero’s voiceover and Klapisch’s occasional leaps back and forth in time eventually clarify all the goings-on. And where Before is nuanced and intimate, this series studies Xavier’s life crises with bursts of madcap humor and freeform style.

It’s not that Klapisch doesn’t want to explore big ideas; he’s just not averse to doing so by having 19th Century German philosophers like Schopenhauer materialize in Xavier’s imagination to quote a line or two of their work. It may be a bit more polished in places than its predecessors, but Chinese Puzzle has the same whimsical flexibility that lets it jump into animation or fantasy or a rumination on the streets of New York City whenever the fancy strikes. Not everything works, but it’s exhilarating to see a filmmaker who isn’t afraid to play with form.

Klapisch sets himself apart from other hyper-active filmmakers by never over-accelerating the pace or losing track of his story. He has a genuine affection for his characters (otherwise he wouldn’t still be telling their story), and is happy to let them indulge their follies and figure out their lives on their own time.

When Klapisch reprises the setup of one of the most memorable scenes from L’Auberge Espagnole, it feels more like a jazz musician improvising over a theme than mere recycling. Where once college kids acted out the folly of youth, now 40-year-olds with kids on their arms attempt to prop up an even wobblier tower of deception. At this age, conventional wisdom dictates they ought to know better, but in Xavier’s life, age only makes things more complicated.

Director: Cédric Klapisch
Writer: Cédric Klapisch
Starring: Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Cécile De France and Kelly Reilly
Release Date: May 16, 2014