Cinematic Thoughts for Cinematic Minds
“Casse-tête chinois” (original title)
2013/ France, USA, Belgium
Director: Cédric Klapisch
Xavier Rousseau (Duris) is a Parisian novelist who ups sticks and moves to New York shortly after his kids (Margaux Mansart, Pablo Mugnier-Jacob) and ex-wife (Kelly Reilly) move out there. Now in the Big Apple, Xavier helps a lesbian friend (De France) have a child, marries a local woman (Li Jun Li) to stay in the country whilst also reuniting with an old flame (Tautou).
If I could attach a single word to Chinese Puzzle it would be “sprawl”. It’s a film that intends to spread itself over a wide canvas. An American-set story with a French main character and a supporting cast of French, Belgian and British characters as well as Americans of various backgrounds, wound around a story about interrelationships. It is, following on from its eclectic mix of characters and situations, a story about how confusing life can be but credit goes to director and writer Cédric Klapisch in keeping the narrative clear and understandable. Yet, however clear the story is, the multitude of supporting players does have its drawbacks.
Inevitably, some of our characters get pushed out of the limelight. Chinese Puzzle is the third part of a trilogy, carrying characters over from two previous films, L’Auberge Espagnole from 2002 and its 2005 follow-up, Russian Dolls. From these we get several different figures and, again to Klapisch’s credit, Chinese Puzzle presents itself in such a way that it’s perfectly coherent to anyone not familiar with the first two instalments (…not that I’m subtly giving away some of my own ignorance there…) but new members of the ensemble that should have more time in the story get overlooked rather carelessly.
The performances also present a very concise assessment of our characters. As our man character Xavier, Romain Duris is likeable. Handsome and charming whilst profoundly intelligent, Duris’ performance and the characters slight flaws (he’s not the most disciplined fellow) don’t make him completely alienating, whereas Tom (the boyfriend of Xavier’s ex-wife) is a victim of the spotlight-stealing. His presentation as a “nice guy” is pretty much all we get. Audrey Tautou’s Martine is also a well-rounded personality both self-assured and sensitive but whilst Cécile De France does a fine job as Xavier’s gal pal, her reckless nature, probably intended as endearing, often comes off as obnoxious.
The film also has some problems with cliché. The lesbian couple who want to have a baby and reaching out to a surrogate father is not really a strikingly bold plot point and the actions towards the film’s end is using a convention which is universally regarded as being tired and over-used. Needless to say are some problem with story but Klapisch is skilled enough to at least make a charming and fairly engaging film, whilst his visual flair as a director makes for some interesting visuals. Chinese Puzzle is not the event film of the year, but it may it’s enjoyable enough viewing with its good performances and charm.