The amount of running that Romain Duris does throughout Cédric Klapisch’s globalization trilogy (The Spanish Apartment, Russian Dolls, and Chinese Puzzle) certainly qualifies him as one of cinema’s great all-time runners. From circling Spain to thwart a roommate’s boyfriend from discovering her infidelity in The Spanish Apartment to dashing through New York City to maintain a phony marriage in Chinese Puzzle, Duris’ Xavier is shown in a constant mad dash. But while Klapisch’s previous installments built upon Xavier’s amorous personality and hyperactive tendencies for comic affect, it’s in Chinese Puzzle where the character nears middle-age where the trilogy adopts some transcendent qualities.
At the end of Russian Dolls, Xavier’s bachelor living and struggling career as a writer required a measure of consistency. He gets together with his former roommate and fellow writer Wendy (Kelly Reilly) where the two presumably settle. Chinese Puzzle opens on their breakup. Ten years after the events of Russian Dolls, Xavier now has something close to resembling a career and two children while living in Paris. But with Wendy moving to New York City to be with her new lover, she decides to take the children. Forced to uproot to be near his children, Xavier shacks up with his former lesbian roommate Isabelle (Cécile De France). Those familiar with the other episodes of this trilogy are rewarded in their understanding of all the intertwining relationships these people have forged through the years. Isabelle’s relentless friendship is a product of Xavier’s kindness in offering her a room in the trilogy’s opening installment, where the two bonded over their studies in Spain. Meanwhile, Xavier’s former lover and best friend Martine (Audrey Tautou) reemerges as a source of solace as the two begin to realize that the trajectory of their lives have been oddly similar in spite of their time apart.
Klapisch’s stylism takes a thankfully restrained direction in Chinese Puzzle, levying most of the weight on Xavier and the women that compose his structurally unsound life. Whereas Klapisch often deployed visual tricks (split-screen, jarring cuts, sped up frame rates, etc) haphazardly throughout The Spanish Apartment and Russian Dolls, he shows greater restraint in this effort to convey a growing sense of structure within Xavier’s life. There are plenty of flights of fantasy that has aided in the trilogy’s comic style (this time supplied by Xavier’s musings with German philosophers) but it’s nevertheless contained to a sense of trying to rebuild on a life that began crumbling at someone’s forties. If Klapisch has proven formidable in any area it’s that he knows how to cut a mean ticking-clock sequence - on two separate occasions, the director has shown a particular penchant for utilizing sitcom conventions and elevating them to something close to art. Here, the aforementioned phony marriage mad-dash is a quirky piece of action comedy that has a keen awareness of the odd circumstance that initiated it.
Klapisch is not very keen on exploring much about the concerns of relationships between men and women following post-collegiate life; Richard Linklater he ain’t. But Klapisch cultivated his prior two films into something substantially more effective in Chinese Puzzle. The Spanish Apartment and Russian Dolls were mildly interesting, to put it nicely, that need not require much of a follow-up. I’m not sure if Chinese Puzzle rinses away the mediocrity of those previous pictures, but it’s certainly a more resonate effort.