CHINESE PUZZLE, DIR. CÉDRIC KLAPISCH (2014) It is safe to assume that any film which includes Audrey Tautou will be endearing and charming. So it is no surprize about the overall mood of this French confection of a romantic comedy. It actually reminds me of the “screwball” comedies of the 1940’s. It is full of unlikely serendipity and credibility-straining plot devices. The anchor is Xavier (Romain Duris), a boyish forty-ish writer living in Paris with his wife and two young children. He has just achieved recognition with his first novel and his career is cresting when his wife, Wendy (Kelly Reilly), informs him that she is leaving him for a man she has met in New York and taking the children with her. If one had not seen the first two films of this trilogy (which I had not) - L’Auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls it might seem as if there was inadequate preparation for this event on which the whole film is predicated.
The cracks in the marriage seem to have been triggered by his agreement to help father the child, as a sperm donor, of his best friend, Isabelle (Cecile de France), a beautiful lesbian who is in a relationship with Ju, a Chinese-American girl. At any rate, he is blindsided by Wendy’s announcemnt, implying a certain level of cluelessness, and does not seem to have any convincing defense or solution. Xavier is not the master of his fate. More accurately, he might be considered a case of arrested development.
He responds to events which are out of his control. When he decides he does not want his children growing up without him he drops everything - his book tour, his life and apartment in Paris and goes to New York without any plan. He moves in temporarily with the now-pregnant Isabelle and Ju, who have recently decamped to Brooklyn to be together. There is an off-kilter logic to this.....the soon to be father........You get the drift.
So when Xavier decides to get his own apartment, Ju offers him her old apartment in Chinatown as a sublet. The film tries to make the transition from bourgeoise Parisian life to gritty Chinatown seem credible by romanticising Chinatown. He writes on the roof surrounded by graffitti which is treated like decorative painting. The small apartment seems to miraculously expand enough to accomodate both his two children and the arrival of Martine (Audrey Tautou) and her son. The plotting is relentlessly convoluted in volving a Green Card marriage based on a life saving act, a revival of an old romance, a baby sitter for Isabelle’s child named Isabelle who is hot for Isabelle, Xavier working as a bike messenger while working on his next novel. It goes on and on. All the while Xavier periodically addresses the camera and explains his take on life which can be summed up with his oft-expressed opinion: “It’s complicated”. I would have to agree. But that is entirely by design and engineered to charm and entertain.
Full disclosure, this is a film genre which I generally eschew. But the film that I was planning to see had already begun due to an error in timetable reading on my part. So this was a default screening for me. My expectations were low but I was pleasantly surprized. I found it better than most. Clever and entertaining and, like Audrey Tautou, endearing and charming.
Review by Belle McIntyre