Cédric Klapisch’s lively romantic comedy, starring Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou, is the final chapter in his ‘Spanish Apartment Trilogy’ which began with the titular The Spanish Apartment (2002). As the name suggests, Chinese Puzzle (2013) is a colourful mishmash of different characters’ stories, sub-plots and intersecting timelines. There’s also a clever meta-textual commentary running throughout. Writer Xavier Rousseau is approaching 40 when his wife of ten years, Wendy (Kelly Reilly), announces that she is leaving him and moving to New York City with their children. Inconsolable without his family, Xavier decides to follow them to the Big Apple, where he hopes to finish his latest book.
There, Xavier is offered a place to stay with his old friend Isabelle (The Kid with a Bike’s Cécile De France) and her lesbian partner Ju (Sandrine Holt). Just to complicate matters, Xavier has recently donated his sperm to the couple and Isabelle is now pregnant. His difficulties begin when he has to find an affordable apartment near his children and learns that marrying an American citizen is the easiest route to live and work legally in the US. After saving a taxi driver’s life, Xavier is presented with a willing Chinese-American ‘wife’ but they have to convince the immigration officers that they are for real. Then an old flame, Martine (Tautou), comes to visit and romance is once again in the air. Klapisch’s has created a nuanced portrait of one man’s mid-life crisis and his relations with three different women.
The four characters have a shared history, having first met as students in The Spanish Apartment and then reconnected in Russian Dolls (2005) and there’s a wonderful honesty about their interactions with each other. One of Chinese Puzzle’s main themes is the characters’ different response to aging and parenting as they approach forty. There are some lovely comic scenes such as when Xavier meets Wendy’s new partner who towers over him and is wealthy, handsome and completely charming. Another memorable moment is Martine’s work presentation in perfect Mandarin to a group of Chinese businessmen. Inevitably, Chinese Puzzle will be compared to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise trilogy. It’s lighter in tone but what raises it above the average rom-com is Klapisch’s playfulness with form and visuals.
At the same time as trying to sort out his new life, Xavier is pursued by his publisher who comments on the action and questions where the plot is going. Xavier also enjoys some fantasy conversations with philosophers such as Hegel and Rousseau. Inspired by photographer Alex Webb’s work, Xavier’s chaotic lifestyle is conveyed through imaginative framing and the clever manipulation of colour and image. Entertaining, uplifting and visually arresting, Klapisch’s Chinese Puzzle is one of the year’s best French offerings.