For a person who grew up in the Midwest, traveling to Europe or New York—places that seem to be full of attractive people all falling in love while dining at sidewalk cafes—makes my mind spin. Films that bring this vision to life are like catnip to me. Even the worst Woody Allen movie—and for the most part, they’ve been pretty awful lately (yes, that includes his recent Oscar winners)—is still appealing with its curated score of old Dixieland jazz and philosophical discussions in Manhattan or London or Paris or Barcelona. Who doesn’t want to frolic in those cities?
Director: Cédric Klapisch
Producer: Cédric Klapisch, Bruno Levy
Writer: Cédric Klapisch
Cinematographer: Natasha Braier
Editor: Anne-Sophie Bion
Music: Christophe Minck
Cast: Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Cécile De France, Kelly Reilly, Sandrine Holt, Flore Bonaventura, Li Jun Li, Peter McRobbie, Jason Kravitz, Adrian Martinez, Sharrief Pugh
US Theatrical Release: May 16, 2014
US Distributor: Cohen Media Group
Chinese Puzzle, the final film in what is called the Spanish Apartment Trilogy (that included L’Auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls), directed by Cédric Klapisch, is one of these movies that should conjure up such feelings in its American audience. It should make older people glow warmly for the young romances of their past. Klapisch must have succeeded in the past, since he’s been able to convince Studio Canal to finance three of these pictures. But Chinese Puzzle also reveals the great limitations of the romantic comedy, namely, that there is an incredibly fine line between the adorable and the insufferable. And people in love can often be inane and narcissistic to the point of nausea. Chinese Puzzle relishes celebrating these latter fools.
The plot is a ridiculous, episodic thing that seems to connect very deeply to the past films, though the almost twenty-five minutes of agonizing backstory that opens it paradoxically doesn’t do a whole lot to tell you about their history. Our hero is a handsome forty-year-old writer named Xavier Rousseau (Romain Duris), who is musing over the complexity of his life in a novel he’s writing called Chinese Puzzle. “Life, for most people, is going from point A to point B. But not for me. I’ve got a point B problem,” he types, observing that somehow, at age 40, he has no clue where his life is heading. This not only signals the absurd lengths to which Klapisch is going to go to make his characters' lives fraught with problems, but also the shallowness of this picture—very few people’s lives are that linear, or at the very least feel linear to them.
After that opening, Chinese Puzzle follows Xavier from Paris to New York, as his ex-wife, Wendy (Kelly Reilly), decides to abandon France for America with a man that she met and take their two children with her. Her new man is rich, and they live off Park Avenue. Xavier, for his part, after landing in America, crashes momentarily in Brooklyn with his best pal Isabelle (Cécile De France), who is a lesbian and is carrying his child through artificial insemination. She lives with her gorgeous partner Ju (Sandrine Holt). Xavier doesn’t want to keep living with them (out of deference to their growing family), so he seeks out a new apartment, and after a dismal montage showing three distinct New York landlords (none of whom makes any sense—a group of Spinal Tap-style rockers is one of the three) he finally settles into Ju’s Chinatown apartment that she’s been renting out.
Chinese Puzzle is the kind of movie where whimsy is held in too high regard—for instance, Ju’s apartment was one she used as an imaginative college student in the 90s, and still has the crazy designs she painted on the walls over two decades ago. Of course, Xavier is the first tenant she’s ever had who paints over them.
Life sure is complex for Xavier. He moves in to his new apartment, begins seeing his kids regularly, but now he needs money, I guess (his novels are apparently so huge in Europe that whole publishing conferences wait for his next manuscript, but this doesn’t translate into cash), so while sitting in a park, he meets an African-American New Yorker named Ray (Sharrief Pugh).
Chinese Puzzle is the kind of movie where Ray, having only just met Xavier, helps our man get a job at a bicycle messenger service, where he wows everyone in the place and we get a nice and tidy little discussion over what it means to be an immigrant. We will never see any of these characters in the messenger company again, nor will we see him riding his bike (he has a bike?) after about five minutes.
Later in the picture, when he needs money, Xavier will land a gig as a bartender and be perfectly capable in that role. And never be seen doing it again.
Xavier needs work because he wants to stay near his kids in America and his tourist visa’s about to expire. While complaining about this on his phone to his ex-wife, he walks into a boorish sidewalk law firm that advertises $500 divorces and such, and where he’ll employ a silly lawyer who is also an idiot, a caricature of a lawyer whose advice seems only to generate income for himself—Xavier doesn’t seem dumb, but there’s no reason whatsoever for him to take this lawyer’s really bad advice or to continue employing him, other than it’s funny (only it’s not). That’s the guy who convinces Xavier to marry someone in order to stay in America.
There’s a plot twist for you! Someone’s apparently seen the 1990 Gérard Depardieu vehicle Green Card—why not, right? After saving the life of a Chinese taxi driver (yes, that’s correct) who speaks impeccable English at one point, then none five minutes later, Xavier goes to the hospital to check up on the man. There, the cabbie’s nephew asks Xavier if the family can do anything for him. So Xavier casually asks if the driver’s beautiful Chinese-American niece—who has apparently nothing to do and no one in her life—can marry him in order for him to become a U.S. citizen. Wow, that lucky lady. Hijinks ensue with the INS, and the woman in question does what she needs to do for him, seems to be a character we might care about, and then…vanishes.
We still have yet to get to Audrey Tautou, who is probably the big drawing card for this movie here in the states—knuckleheads like me still trudge out to see her pictures, dreaming we’ll have yet another taste the cinematic dark chocolate truffles that are Amelie or Priceless, though for the most part her movies leave us depressed and sad at her failures, which are becoming legion. Not having seen the other two films in the trilogy, Tautou’s Martine seems like she was the main female character in these movies, and she comes in with a weird flourish. After Skyping with our man (Chinese Box currently holds the cinematic world record for most scenes on Skype—seriously, there’s like five of them), she shows up in New York for work. Her work is apparently meeting a board room full of Chinese executives at some kind of tea corporation where she needs to do business, and amazes them with her grasp of the language.
Get this: Chinese Puzzle is the kind of movie where, when Martine fails to be able to leave New York that night because there’s no “plane tickets left” (their words), the two characters choose to go back to his place. When Martine hesitates, Xavier says to her, “Scared I’ll rape you?”
Later they have sex and afterwards joke about how she cried out, “Go deeper!” Well, there you go.
Oh, there’s a lot more: affairs, marriages, children whose sole existence hinges on focusing intently on the sex lives of their parents (is there a Bechdel test for kids?), characters who come and go, mean INS agents, the birth of a baby, two characters running nude across the rooftops of Chinatown, shots of the New York City skyline, and lots of sexy music that’s supposed to make you feel urbane and hip.
Going back to the scene of the fertilization: Chinese Puzzle is also the kind of movie that fills its dull spaces with whimsical asides that never work—like when Xavier is preparing to masturbate in order to donate sperm, he reads a Playboy in which the models actually come to life and prance about the room. Later, when he’s sad about life, Xavier will be visited by German philosophers Schopenhauer and Hegel; when he first moves to New York, we get to see Xavier and Isabelle walking through the city as animated torn photographs. Why? These moments are unconnected and serve no purpose other than to prop up mediocre storytelling, and frankly suggest a filmmaker lacking confidence in his story, such as it is.
When you see romantic comedies like 2006’s Priceless, a little gem that came and went some years ago (starring Tautou and the woefully underused Gad Elmaleh), or even a decent Woody Allen movie—or, hell, even a bad one—there is an unreality that you come to expect. Despite the conflicts in those movies, the love comes fairly easily, as do the laughs. But at least they’re leavened with melancholy and outright bitterness. People hurt, they get low, and so when they reach the blissful heights of love the moments feel earned.
Chinese Puzzle has no such reality. But its fantasy is also just plain ridiculous, its twists and turns existing only for cheap drama or chuckles. Klapisch’s cutesy characters never really suffer, and he seems to revel in dropping them into the most outrageous situations that come from nowhere and vanish as soon as their tension is used up. Ultimately, this is the type of work that might have succeeded on television, like the British show Coupling, where manic young people can fall in and out of each other’s bed and engage in lunacy for a half an hour ten or twelve times over a season—more if it’s an American sitcom. Crammed into one picture, this type of storytelling’s exhausting, not to mention making no sense whatsoever, and drains away any of the film’s possible charm.
When summer descends upon our land, the myth is that local theaters fill themselves with loud, explosive fare featuring superheroes, monsters, space battles, and raunchy comedy—blockbusters, the stuff for fanboys and merchandising for children that inexplicably follows them into adulthood. This is certainly true, but it is also true that if you live in a major city, you can also get your fill of international and independent films. These are often smart romantic comedies that try to reach for the cinematic heavens: Amelie, Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, and Woody Allen movies, among others. Chinese Puzzle fails to fill this need, and thus far we still don’t have a great, or even mediocre romantic comedy this season, and summer’s hourglass is quickly emptying. But unless you’ve seen and loved the first two movies in the Spanish Apartment Trilogy, Chinese Puzzle is going to be a frustrating experience for fans of the this type of picture, and its mania is so acute it almost leaves one yearning for the “calm” of the next Michael Bay movie.