Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Chinese Puzzle reunites the characters of L'Auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls

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Over the past dozen years, French filmmaker Cédric Klapisch, who made a bit of a splash in the ’90s with When The Cat’s Away and Un Air De Famille, has created a trilogy of lightweight, globe-trotting comedies populated by remarkably annoying characters. L’Auberge Espagnole (2002), sometimes translated as The Spanish Apartment, introduced Xavier (Romain Duris), a grad student who signs up for a year abroad in Barcelona and has various lackluster adventures with his roommates in a crowded flat. Three years later, Russian Dolls reunited most of the gang in Saint Petersburg and elsewhere, revealing that they were all just as frantically tiresome as ever. Both films were solid hits, however, so Klapisch has now made a belated third entry, Chinese Puzzle, which is set not in China but in one of Brooklyn’s several Chinatowns. It’s the best of the trilogy, though that’s not saying much; Xavier and his gal pals have mellowed somewhat with age, and Klapisch seems much more energized by New York than he was by his previous locales.

Russian Dolls saw Xavier become a hack novelist and get together with Wendy (Kelly Reilly), the English TV writer he’d met in the original film. Eight years later, the two have just split, and Wendy, who’s now dating an American, has whisked their two young kids off to New York. Xavier soon follows, which he can do in part because his friend Isabelle (Cécile De France) also now lives in New York with her girlfriend, Ju (Sandrine Holt). Xavier agrees to donate sperm so the two women can have a child, which is but the first of many complications—others include Xavier’s marriage of convenience to a Chinese woman, Nancy (Li Jun Li), for the purpose of obtaining a work visa; Isabelle’s affair with her and Ju’s babysitter, who’s also named Isabelle (Flore Bonaventura); and the sudden appearance of Martine (Audrey Tautou), who was Xavier’s girlfriend before the trilogy began and now finds herself drawn to him all over again.

None of this is exactly uproarious, and Xavier’s penchant for prattling aloud about how complicated life is recalls what an insufferable prick he was (not by design, clearly) in the first two installments. What’s more, Chinese Puzzle assumes familiarity with these characters and their histories, and will be largely meaningless to anyone coming to it as a virgin. Those who’ve enjoyed the group’s previous escapades, however (and so are taking the criticisms above with a grain of salt), will surely want to see how it all shakes out. If nothing else, there’s a welcome recognition this time around that nonstop drama can be a pain in the ass; Xavier spends much of the film running around trying to put out fires (as when he lets the Isabelles use his apartment for an assignation, then discovers that immigration officials will be stopping by), but he also grumbles about how ridiculous it is that they’re all still behaving like this as they approach 40. If there must be a fourth movie in the series, waiting 15 or 20 years before making it might be the best idea.