J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Klapisch’s Chinese Dolls

The interconnected group of friends and lovers from Cédric Klapisch’s L’Auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls represent a European microcosm, but to pursue their second chances at life and love they appropriately congregate in Lower Manhattan. Chinatown will see an influx of Francophone expats in Klapisch’s Chinese Puzzle (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Novelist Xavier Rousseau is way behind on his latest deadline. He has been a bit distracted by the dissolution of his marriage to the British Wendy. Following his soon to be ex-wife to New York for the sake of his kids, Rousseau kind of-sort of experiences fatherhood again as the sperm-donator for his best pal Isabelle and her Chinese-American partner Ju. With little money and fewer prospects, Rousseau crashes in Ju’s hipster-friendly Chinatown apartment. It will become quite homey when he hosts his former lover Martine and her two children during their New York vacation.

Will sudden proximity rekindle their relationship? Fortunately she is rather understanding of his green card marriage to a second generation Chinatown New Yorker, but keeping up appearances for immigration will lead to a lot of door slamming and mad dashing about. Yet, somehow it all still represents the mature phase of his life.

Although Puzzle is the concluding film of what Klapisch calls “The Trilogy of Xavier’s Travels” (picture that on the DVD boxed set), it easily stands alone. However, those who are emotionally invested in the prior two installments will take great satisfaction from the nontraditional familial bonds that develop between the characters. In fact, it might be the most unabashedly optimistic and upbeat film for all concerned, propelled along by Loïk Dury and Christophe “Disco” Minck’s infectiously peppy Cesar Award nominated score.

Like a comfortable old shoe, Romain Duris exudes loser likability as Rousseau. He also shares some pleasant (if not exactly scorching) screen chemistry with Audrey Tautou’s Martine. In a nice change of pace following films like The Kid with the Bike and Hereafter, Cécile de France shows a keen facility for slightly naughty physical comedy as the Belgian Isabelle. Strangely, the American marketing campaign is not playing up House of Cards’ Sandrine Holt as Ju, but she adds some class and dignity to the proceedings.

Puzzle is a breezy and buoyant film, but it is not utterly vacuous. It clearly celebrates family and friendship, suggesting playing the cards one has been dealt might just turn out to be a blessing. That it is an unusually attractive cast of characters grappling with impending middle age just makes it all the more cinematic. A can’t miss for fans of Xavier’s previous travels, Chinese Puzzle is recommended for Francophiles and international rom-com audiences when it opens this Friday (5/16) in New York at the Angelika Film Center downtown and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema uptown.

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