Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
We're always being advised to watch a TV or movie series in the order from the beginning, but I have to say that I stumbled into this one completely backwards, with no ill effects. In 2002, French director Cédric Klapisch made a film called L'auberge Espagnol, about the romantic adventures of a young student in Barcelona. A second film set in Russia followed three years later. I haven't seen either one but I'm certainly ready to now. This third installment in the series, 2013's Chinese Puzzle is a winning romantic comedy with a strong international flavor.
Xavier Rousseau (Romain Duris) is once again learning that life is complicated. Nearing forty, he's now a popular author, but his 'perfect' marriage to Englishwoman Wendy (Kelly Reilly) has fallen apart. Worse, she moves with their two children Tom (Pablo-Mugnier-Jacob) and Mia (Margaux Mansart) to New York. The heartbroken Xavier follows them to New York and stays for a time with his ex-girlfriend Isabelle (Cécile de France). Isabelle's lover Ju (Sandrine Holt) finds Xavier a room in Chinatown. At a playground with his kids he meets Ray (Sharrief Pugh), who finds him a job as a bicycle messenger. Once again the complications begin to accumulate. Isabelle and Ju want a baby, and ask Xavier to be its biological father. Objecting to the uniforms his children wear to school, Xavier takes legal action against Wendy. He must also look into the sticky problem of staying on in New York with just a tourist's visa. His new lawyer advises him to get married, so he goes it in-name-only with Nancy (Li Jun Li), a Chinese- American woman. More risk enters the picture when the new mother Isabelle begins a wild affair behind Ju's back with her babysitter, also named Isabelle (Flore Bonaventura). Xavier is up to his neck in women -- an ex-wife Wendy, ex-lover Isabelle and yet another rekindled romance from the past: lovely Martine (Audrey Tatou), who is now involved in a big business deal with a Chinese company.
Chinese Puzzle gets off on the wrong foot with a flashy title sequence that tries too hard to get attention. But it takes off as soon as we meet, or re-meet, its fun group of characters. Leading player Romain Duris is impossible not to like; he has an open face, a friendly smile and a look of concern for those around him, even strangers. His Xavier is dedicated to his kids and willing to make a major life change just to be near them. Finally, he seems to have nothing bad to say about anybody, and never loses control of his temper. Only a character like that could sit in the New York Subway with three ex-lovers, all of which are teasing him. "The perfect woman", one of them smiles, "would have to be a combination of us."
For people that worry about losing control of their lives, this is a pretty stable group of 30-somethings. Money seems to be no problem for any of them. Xavier complains about the lack of affordable housing in Manhattan, but Isabelle and Ju inhabit a large, comfy space and Wendy's new beau lives in a fabulous apartment overlooking Central Park. Even Xavier's unfurnished Chinatown place over a bakery has a stylish look. Xavier is an author with a following and an old-fashioned publisher who makes solicitous Skype calls; the other friends all seem established in the arts while Audrey Tatou's Martine is on the verge of a major international deal. She must be a genius because she successfully pitches a roomful of Chinese executives on a new way of looking at the significance of Tea. It's a clever scene, as Audrey Tatou speaks in impressive-sounding Chinese. We non-Chinese speakers don't know what she's saying, but the executives spontaneously applaud when she's finished. What can she possibly be saying that's so forceful?
The characterizations are marvelous. The freshest and most engaging character is Cécile de France's Isabelle, an irrepressible lesbian never afraid to speak her mind. Xavier doesn't get a clear answer when he asks if she's the male half in her relationship, a setup that becomes more amusing when Ju proves infertile, and Isabelle must carry their baby. Even prettier than she was eight years ago, Kelly Reilly's Wendy is now estranged from Xavier; it's interesting how we believe that the characters no longer need each other but still like each other. Xavier's acceptance of shifting relationships makes him a new kind of male hero. His existence isn't wrapped up in defending the male ego, but neither is he passive. Audrey Tatou's Martine now has her own children and stays with Xavier on her business trip. The actress relies on her natural charm, which is of course more than enough to keep us engaged. All we ask is how Martine and Xavier find so much private time, with so many kids in tow.
In general our 'established' adults have advanced in wisdom yet in some ways are still acting as if college had never ended: the society of school friends remains. The relative wealth on view removes them from the general anxiety of subsistence - none is so much as nailed down to specific working hours. They are committed to their children but don't neglect themselves sacrificing for them. Although the main characters want steady life partners their commitment is subject to change. They consider themselves 'works in progress' and have redefined marriage to their needs.
At one point Xavier drags mattresses through the street, as if director Klapisch were quoting Richard Lester's The Knack... and How to Get It. The film repeats Xavier Rousseau's signature action of running through the street, desperate to get somewhere in a hurry. Chinese Puzzle wants to maintain some of the spirit of a farce, and one of the main climaxes is another race through the streets to keep Ju from discovering Isabelle's adultery with Isabelle. This coincides with a visit by the Green Card INS checkers, who discover not just a newlywed couple but also everybody in Xavier's life, all at once. The two Isabelles get locked out on a roof, naked.
Somewhat problematical is the film's attitude toward immigration fraud. For Xavier it's imperative that he find a way to remain in New York, but we're not sure what his bride of convenience Nancy gets out of the deal - she's does it to fulfill a family obligation. Since Nancy is Chinese-American Xavier is also getting involved 'politically' with the 'Chinese Puzzle' that folds foreign stereotypes and the immigration labyrinth into his complicated life. Nancy seems delighted to help out Xavier, but the film makes the INS system seem like a pushover for our international sophisticates. 1
None of these issues develop in a negative way, and we very quickly become invested in the problems of this likeable pack of post-Yuppie internationals. No spirits are crushed or hearts broken, and just as in Lake Woebegone, all the kids (and adults) are above average. Older movies about living the free life consistently took a moralizing point of view, but with the possible exception of this show's Chinese characters Ju and Nancy, the freedom doesn't seem to be at anyone else's expense. The show is aware that things have changed: at one point Xavier confronts an Orthodox Jewish couple that assume that because he has children and no wife, that his wife must have died. Chinese Puzzle concludes on a happy, personal note. I don't know if viewers that have followed the series will consider this installment worthy or repetitious, but I'm sufficiently intrigued to seek out the first two films. It may have some of the resonance of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise - Before Sunset -- Before Midnight trilogy.
The Cohen Media Group's Blu-ray of Chinese Puzzle is a beauty in all respects. The cinematography takes the swank apartments and lofts for granted but also shows Xavier herding his kids on ordinary streets. In general it's the most un-hostile image of New York yet seen. Its foreigner's viewpoint sees New York as a beautiful melting pot instead of the typical anthill of aggravation or Woody Allen's nirvana for intellectual hipsters. Chinatown is beautiful. Most all the characters (except one black and a Puerto Rican) are sweethearts. When Xavier Rousseau walks into a high level corporate boardroom unshaved and dressed in jeans, we see not a single disdainful look from the Chinese executives. Optimism reigns.
The solid colors and slick digital effects come to the fore in sequences involving animated maps and the aforementioned main titles. At one point Xavier fantasies that some girlie magazine illustrations come to life, which cues more fancy visual effects. These seem like add-ons to the 'realistic' story, as are two scenes in which Xavier is visited by the spirits of Schopenhauer and Hegel, who give him writing advice. That, and Martine's ecstatic reaction to reading Xavier's latest book are there to establish him as a terrific writer. The entertaining Chinese Puzzle is like a college dream in which all of one's classmates develop their talents, and become successful professionals.
Cohen gives us a making-of featurette, the excellent trailer (which convinced me to give the show a try) and cast interviews that would seem to be in press kit form for media outlets. Each interview is covered by two cameras, with each angle retained intact for a video editor to work with. These foreign actresses seem more poised and exciting than anybody we see on American TV entertainment-business shows... they seem more committed to doing good work than seizing money and power.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Chinese Puzzle Blu-ray
Movie: Very Good ++
Supplements: making of featurette, interviews.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
No; Subtitles: English, but only for French and Spanish dialogue.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 24, 2014
1. It seems terribly unfair that sophisticated immigrants and visa violators from Asia and Europe circumventing the rules can be fairly confident they won't be carded in public, while poor Latin Americans are routinely targeted in deportation raids. I saw this in Irish pubs in the 1970s - an illegal dishwasher might be nabbed, while half the customers out front were Irish visa jumpers, taking full advantage of California's liberal state welfare system.
Text © Copyright 2014 Glenn Erickson
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