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chinese-puzzle-still-022014

Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance

Directed by: Cedric Klapisch

Starring: Romain Duris, Audrey Tatou, Cecile De France, Kelly Reilly

It’s been nearly a decade since we last caught up with Xavier. Having watched him mature from economics student to civil servant briefly and onto professional writer, Cédric Klapisch uproots his hero to New York to round off his adventures. Despite the new setting and the passage of time, there’s a reassuring familiarity as Romain Duris drags Xavier through an ever more convoluted life, the Chinese Puzzle of the title. The effort to neatly wrap up a trilogy that began in 2002 occasionally leads to a muddle of contrivances but the entertainment remains undimmed.

So where is Xavier (Romain Duris) these days? We first met him in The Spanish Apartment (2002) before catching up again in Russian Dolls (2005). Since then he’s married and divorced Wendy (Kelly Reilly) but not before two children have appeared. His writing career is progressing down the artistic route that had previously been off limits so life should be looking up. And then he finds out Wendy has met a new man and is moving to New York with the children. The only possible response? Pack bags and follow blindly after.

Fear not though. Moving to a new continent doesn’t lessen the opportunities to bring back old faces. As he attempts to set himself up, find employment and build a civil relationship with Wendy, he’s aided by old friend Isabelle (Cécile de France) and her new partner Ju (Sandrine Holt), while Martine (Audrey Tautou) is never far from the action despite the North American shift.

None of the changes have reduced the frantic energy that’s marked the trilogy nor has it diminished Klapisch’s experimentation with a bold mishmash of techniques. Eclectic music booms out as he turns to a number of tricks from split screens to a flashing series of portraits highlighting the aging process the main characters have undergone. Most importantly though, Klapisch keeps the cheeky sense of humour that allows moments of high drama to slip effortlessly into breathless farce.
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At the heart of it all is Romain Duris, the main reason this trilogy has worked. He’s lost none of his shine here, Xavier still equal parts charm and irritant, making a series of irrational decisions while somehow remaining relatable. Even when Klapisch starts to overwhelm his plot with the accumulated past of previous outings, Duris brings a warmth that transcends the weight of forced relationships and odd choices.

It’s this adherence to the past that holds back Chinese Puzzle. Klapisch has to contrive increasingly unrealistic ways to bring everyone together. Martine is the most incongruous, popping up for a random holiday with her kids. At least Isabelle has been granted a New York based partner to justify her continuing existence in Xavier’s world. When all the pieces are in position, there is an almost overbearing desperation on display as characters are shuffled around until they all come together for a snug conclusion that suffers for its neatness. It’s hard to make a film about the complications of life when the narrative will turn to any excuse to justify throwing them all onto the stage together with minimal difficulty.

The Chinese Puzzle of the title is itself something of a misnomer. The complicated nature of modern life runs through Xavier’s narration. He’s notched up numerous relationships, a failed marriage, two children, a career of artistic expression that threatens financial problems and a continent crossing existence. For many, this would be a confusing life to manage. Indeed, Xavier explains as much in his new book. And yet it all seems to come so easy to him. He finds work when he needs it, accommodation falls into his lap and even new relationships are a breeze. For a man who complains a lot about his problems, he doesn’t seem to have much justification. It’s only the likeability of Duris that rescues Chinese Puzzle from cumbersome indulgence.

As the end draws near, Klapisch finally abandons drama choosing to draw the curtain using a comic set piece that ends with a hefty dollop of nostalgia. The forced manoeuvrings start to wear as he herds a disparate bunch into the same pen but Chinese Puzzle rounds off Xavier’s trilogy with breezy charm and no shortage of fun.

★★★

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