It has come to my attention that this is the third and closing film of a trilogy, starting with L’Auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls, both written and directed by Cédric Klapisch. This review is written from the point of view of someone who has seen neither of the preceding films; even with this knowledge, the four-out-of-five star rating still stands. Continue reading to see why.
Many are the movies that try to be a lot of things at once. Rare are the ones that succeed. Cédric Klapisch’s slightly sexy and farcical romantic comedy Chinese Puzzle (original title: Casse-tête chinois) mirthfully plays with its own theme of complexity in relationships by bombarding our main character, Xavier Rousseau (Romain Duris) with every possible relationship Klapisch can throw at him, and it all still manages to make perfect sense.
Chinese Puzzle tries to make heads or tails of Xavier’s tumultuous life as he juggles fatherhood, his writing job, and his failed marriage to Wendy (Kelly Reilly), the mother of his two young children. Almost as soon as Wendy leaves him, she makes the decision to be with her new love in New York and take the kids with her. Alarmed and without much thought for the future, Xavier packs up and moves to New York as well, relying on lesbian couple Isabelle (Cécile de France) and Ju (Sandrine Holt) for temporary housing. (Picture a more serious Mrs. Doubtfire, but without the Robin Williams shenanigans and the cross-dressing.)
Oh, and did I mention that Isabelle has, with Ju’s consent, asked Xavier to be the sperm donor for their child? Nah, that doesn’t complicate things at all for him, nor does his ex-girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou) with her two children coming to visit. On top of all this, he’s got to fight for his rights as a parent, as decisions regarding his children are being made without his consent and knowledge (his outrage at the prospect of his son wearing a school uniform is one of my favorite highlights of the movie). And if THAT wasn’t enough, the INS is breathing down his neck and investigating his life, causing him to participate in some very Gérard Depardieu-like antics.
Klapisch playfully shovels almost every possible permutation of happenstance at Xavier’s feet, making him dance to a beat that’s consistently keeping him on his toes. The film’s theme is touched upon constantly by Xavier, as he wonders about life and how things get to be so complicated. Yearning for simplicity, he tries to navigate his way through all of these obstacles on his way to contentedness. Situations get awkward and almost go completely out of control; when it comes to a head, you find yourself expecting the explosion and for heads to spin like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. However, Klapisch avoids sticky wickets (for the most part), instead opting for the ending he’s chosen.
I’m not sure if said ending is genius, a bit of a cop-out, too happy-happy, or the fantasy that everyone wishes life to be. Maybe it’s all of the above. However, nothing rings false about it, and it’s more than satisfying enough to leave a smile on your face. As I remember Chinese Puzzle, I’m reminded of the toy this film was named after. When you take it apart, it’s the most simple-looking thing you can think of, being little more than interlocking pieces of wood. Yet trying to put them together to make the whole is the greater challenge, and Klapisch has put his puzzle together masterfully. The film never suffers from dullness, and it’s an absolute joy to watch Xavier throw himself into his greatest task: being happy.
In French and English with English subtitles. Now playing at the Angelika Pop-Up in Union Market, Washington, DC.