Cédric Klapisch’s “L’Auberge Espagnole” and “Russian Dolls” weren’t really begging for a third and final entry in the global adventures of Xavier (Romain Duris), but it doesn’t make “Chinese Puzzle” any less enjoyable. What’s impressive is that despite the sometimes heavy subject matter—divorce, creative crisis and trying to find an affordable 2BR in New York City—Klapisch’s film is light and fizzy, set to a soundtrack of funk and salsa. We’ll claim that we laughed throughout the film, but we were probably heard full-on giggling with delight.
The trilogy of films follows Xavier as he changes from college student to full-fledged adult to a father. “Russian Dolls” left Xavier paired with Wendy (Kelly Reilly), but “Chinese Puzzle” wastes no time in breaking them up after a decade together with two children. Now 40 years old, Xavier wants to help his lesbian friend Isabelle (Cécile De France) and her partner (Sandrine Holt) have a child with his sperm, and Wendy cannot comprehend his desire. After their marital struggles start to push them apart, she falls for a Manhattan man and promptly leaves Paris with her and Xavier’s children for New York City. Though Xavier’s career as a novelist is just taking off (with autobiographical books titled “L’Auberge Espagnole” and “Russian Dolls”), he abandons his French life and editor behind to follow his children. Isabelle lives in the city, and he stays with her while he tries to figure out life separated from his wife. Ex-girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou) visits New York for her work, putting the four old friends in the same city once again.
“Chinese Puzzle” narrows its focus a bit; we don’t see what has become of William (Kevin Bishop), Neus (Irene Montala), Soledad (Cristina Brondo) or a few of the other characters from the previous films. While we appreciate this dose of realism in the idea that you lose contact with friends as decades pass, much of the action here feels a little too nicely engineered. Wendy just so happens to move to New York, which is where Isabelle and her partner live. Martine takes a business trip there, bringing everyone together again. We understand that New York City is the center of the universe (true story), but this much supposed kismet feels like it would only happen inside of a scripted film. Some of the misunderstandings and antics feel like they could’ve come from a sitcom, but they’re so well-written and well-meaning that we can’t complain too much. It also works due to the talent involved; Duris, Tautou, Reilly and De France have played these characters off and on for more than a decade, and they’re clearly at home in the roles.
As Barcelona in “L’Auberge Espagnole” and St. Petersburg in “Russian Dolls,” New York City feels like a part of the ensemble cast here. There’s some questionable geography, but overall, the film perfectly captures the mood of living in the city. Xavier travels between Brooklyn, Chinatown and Central Park South, giving plenty of screentime to the MTA and allowing viewers a look at exactly how long it can take to travel just a few miles within the city. The soul-sucking process of trying to find an apartment also plays a large part in the film (and our nightmares).
While watching the previous two films helps viewers have a better understanding of Xavier’s history (particularly in regards to his relationships with various women), one can view “Chinese Puzzle” on its own and still fully absorb Xavier’s plight. Between this and Richard Linklater‘s ‘Before’ trilogy, we’re supporters of indie films joining blockbusters in serialization. Not every small comedy needs a follow-up, but we appreciate getting to spend more time with some characters and in some worlds. In the 12 years since the release of “L’Auberge Espagnol,” Klapisch has grown as a filmmaker, just as Xavier has matured and changed throughout the trilogy. This is a more assured, stylish offering than we’ve seen in the past, and we’re a little melancholy that this is our last time hanging out with Xavier and company. However, Klapisch wraps things up in a satisfying way, so we suppose we’ll be fine with the way this friendship comes to a close. [B+]