As an avowed fan of both The Spanish Apartment (2002) and Russian Dolls (2005), it was with much anticipation that I awaited the arrival of the third film in the series – Chinese Puzzle – into Australian cinemas. Of course, such anticipation can often lead to disappointment, but I am pleased to report that this wasn’t the case in this instance, with Chinese Puzzle proving a more than worthy next chapter in the lives of this disparate bunch of characters. Written and directed by Cedric Klapisch, Chinese Puzzle is a truly cosmopolitan film with a predominantly European and Asian cast inhabiting a story set amid the hustle and bustle of contemporary New York. From the moment the opening credit sequence began – comprising images of the various key characters from all three films over a fabulously funky soundtrack – I had a smile on my face that remained firmly in place for much of the running time.
For those who have seen the previous two films, it is a familiarity with these flawed but utterly likeable characters that make the film so enjoyable. The narrative centres on Xavier (Romain Duris) who, at the beginning of the film, is living in France with girlfriend Wendy (Kelly Reilly) and their two kids. However, when Wendy announces that she and the kids are uprooting for a life in New York with new beau John (Peter Hermann), the story kicks into gear. Desperate to remain a part of his children’s lives, Xavier follows in hot pursuit and temporarily moves in with lesbian pal Isabelle (Cecile De France), who has also recently relocated to the Big Apple and shares an apartment with her girlfriend Ju (Sandrine Holt). Xavier finds himself in the midst of all manner of predicaments. He needs to find a job and somewhere to live and is under increasing pressure from his Paris-based editor to finish his new novel. Complicating matters further is the fact that Isabelle is pregnant thanks to a sperm donation from Xavier.
In an effort to secure American citizenship, Xavier enters into a marriage with Nancy (Li Jun Li), the niece of a man to whom he lends assistance during a road rage attack. All the while, Xavier is complicit in an affair between Isabelle and a babysitter (also named Isabelle) and, when old flame Martine (a beguiling Audrey Tautou) arrives in town with her two children in tow, it seems as though everything might come crumbling down for our hapless protagonist. There are wonderfully comedic moments galore, along with splashes of sentiment and introspection as Xavier takes stock of his own life and desperately tries to prevent everything from falling apart. Duris is terrific in the lead role, presenting Xavier as desperate yet charming with a genuine affection for the various people in his life. The film has plenty to say about love, friendship and the passing of time. All the main characters have, for the most part, matured both physically and emotionally and the friendships have endured across time and space.
At times, the film seems like a paean to the city of New York as much as anything, with Klapisch showing us parts of the city that are rarely seen in the myriad action films and romantic comedies that emanate from here. Not only do we see this other side of New York, but Klapisch seems to want us to truly appreciate the sights, sounds, energy and idiosyncrasies of the place, all of which add to the charm of the film. Whilst all the lead performances are fine, as you would expect given their familiarity with their characters, those in supporting roles also shine. In particular, both Holt and Li are fabulously understated but effective in their portrayals, while Jason Kravits is funny as Xavier’s two-bit lawyer. It is also great to see child characters that are a far cry from the whining, petulant monsters that we typically see in Hollywood productions. Throw in some magic realism by way of fantasy sequences that summon famous European philosophers to impart words of wisdom upon Xavier and you have a thoroughly delightful cinematic experience.
More than anything, it is the various implications and complications of the relationships that make Chinese Puzzle such a treat. Whilst the ending does seemingly wrap things up somewhat neatly, it also leaves open the possibility of more to come from this group and I would certainly welcome an opportunity to spend more time in their company.