Film Review: Chinese Puzzle

Rapid-fire love letter to New York and love itself reunites four of the stars from filmmaker C&#233;dric Klapisch&#8217;s trilogy that began over a decade ago with the hit <i>L&#8217;Auberge Espagnole</i>. In this final installment, the once twenty-som

In many ways, Cédric Klapisch’s trilogy is not unlike Richard Linklater’s “Before” bumpy-romance trilogy with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Yes, Linklater focuses on only two smitten characters and Klapisch has followed several more, but they’re all the same age and with similar goals. And both Hawke and Chinese Puzzle’s Romain Duris play published authors, a profession maybe signaling certain sensibilities and susceptibilities.

But the French trilogy is a much lighter dish, more quirky and humorous and less probing. Life happens and Klapisch allows his characters to ride smoother waves. If Linklater’s trilogy tickles the brain and tugs at emotions and self-awareness, Klapisch’s hits the funny bone. Chinese Puzzle isn’t deep, but it’s a blast that will provide fans of the earlier films with a grand time.

Much credit goes to the regulars: stars Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Cécile de France and Kelly Reilly, whose characters all met as roommates at that Barcelona “auberge.” Now, real life has weighed in and all find themselves in a variety of challenging situations in New York, whether downtown Manhattan or Brooklyn.

Again, the linchpin is Xavier (Duris), a struggling writer first seen in Paris, who has a demanding editor and a broken marriage as wife Wendy (Reilly) has dumped him for someone wealthy in New York and taken their children.

Xavier instinctively heads to New York to recover his muse and visit the kids. He temporarily stays with pal Isabelle (Cécile de France) from the auberge days, who, now gay, lives with her Chinese-American partner Ju (Sandrine Holt) in Brooklyn. Ju eventually helps Xavier settle into the serviceable Chinatown apartment she rented when in college. Xavier returns the favor by supplying the couple with semen so they can have a child via artificial insemination. He expedites the task by scanning pictures of women together in a porn magazine.

As for his own kids, Kelly allows visits, but she’s cold and her significant other and Xavier are like oil and water. Complications mount: Xavier struggles as a bike messenger but learns it would be best for him to marry to obtain his visa to stay in the U.S. Isabelle and Ju have their baby, but Isabelle and the babysitter get something going and Xavier must play interference so Ju doesn’t find out. A favor Xavier does a Chinese-American cabbie gives him the opportunity to marry, but the stern immigration grunt who must determine that true love is the ballast for the marriage brings trouble.

And Martine (Audrey Tautou), from the “auberge” years, arrives in New York on a business trip (we are asked to believe she’s now a Chinese-speaking, big-deal international real estate exec) and stays with pal Xavier. But Martine has deeper designs.

Chinese Puzzle betrays Klapisch’s curious interest in things Chinese and lesbian, as much screen time is given to both, especially Isabelle’s dalliance with the sitter. Klapisch’s latter obsession flirts with exploitation, but maybe it’s just the French in him or the director suspecting what his audiences want.

Beautifully shot, Chinese Puzzle delivers a sparkling French present in its colorful portrait of a New York off the sightseer’s beaten path. The film is also distinguished by snippets of amusing animation and special effects (Hegel and Schopenhauer show up to guide Xavier) that never interfere with Xavier’s unfolding adventures.

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