Chinese Puzzle (Casse-tête chinois)  – ★★★★
Chinese Puzzle is the final film in Cédric Klapisch’s travel trilogy (other films are L’Auberge Espagnole (2001) and Russian Dolls (2004)). The film presents Xavier, a French writer (Romain Duris (Populaire (2012)), who leads a confused and stressful life in Paris. When his girlfriend of 10 years, Wendy (Kelly Reilly (Flight (2012)) leaves him for another man and moves to New York, Xavier follows her to the Big Apple to be closer to his children. In New York, Xavier’s adventures begin as he rekindles romance with his ex-girlfriend, Martine (Audrey Tautou (Amélie (2001)), marries a Chinese-American woman to get a US Green Card, and becomes a surrogate father to his lesbian friend, Isabelle (Cecile De France).
Chinese Puzzle is shot in the same style as the two previous films in Cédric Klapisch’s trilogy. The film has interesting cultural references, including jokes about stereotypes and personal identities. From the vibrant portrayal of the NYC’s Chinatown life, where Xavier rents a flat, to French-specific allegories, Chinese Puzzle takes an amusing look at globalisation. However, Chinese Puzzle is also not so much a film about cultural differences as a film about the complexities and pressures of a modern life. The main hero Xavier not only has to adapt to living in a different cultural setting, but also battles immigration authorities, pressures to find work, and a hectic life of being a separated father.
Chinese Puzzle may not be as “magical” as L’Auberge Espagnole or Russian Dolls, but it still has plenty of cleverly constructed comic moments, which will make the audience if not laugh, then definitely smile: there is a funny scene where Xavier meets his ex-girlfriend’s new American boyfriend for the first time and pictures himself in a costume of a sixteenth century-Frenchman, who has just arrived from the Old World, so misunderstood and out-of-place he feels. Yes, the film is filled with certain clichés, with Xavier “talking” to Schopenhauer and Hegel, but they do not overwhelm or annoy, and are even fun to watch as our hero finds his “existential” roots in the maddening world around him. The music and generally great soundtrack certainly help along the way: there is a great, nostalgic song “If I had my way” by Kraked Units, and even Bach’s Goldberg Variations is thrown in.
Another theme permeating the film is, of course, New York and the pursuit of the American Dream, as Xavier settles in to find his place in the land of freedom, being hired to work as a mail delivery man, and having squabbles with his ignorant and unpredictable lawyer. In fact, New York is presented as almost another character in Chinese Puzzle, accentuating city’s cultural diversity, coffees-on-the-go and busy streets.
The cast does a great job. Romain Duris is as charming as ever, mingling with three ladies who seem to represent different stereotypical characters and behaviours: (i) a moody, wimpy and confused Wendy; (ii) wanting-to- change-the-world-at-whatever-cost Martine; and (iii) lusty homosexual Isabelle. Although the emotional inputs and outputs between characters are lukewarm at best, their chemistry is nevertheless great, and each character in the movie is likeable in his or her own unique and odd way.
The weakest point in the film comes when Xavier gets to meet his father, who once also loved and lived in New York. This father-son sequence feels out of place in this film, confuses the audience, and introduces horrid distress in what so far has been a comic film. Another drawback may be that Chinese Puzzles narrative flows as Xavier recalls his life backwards, and this makes the film unnecessarily confusing given the already rapid intertwined turns of events. Coupled with this is the completely unrealistic portrayal of some of the events in the film, such as Xavier getting work “illegally”, marrying “illegally” and staying in the US “illegally”, when, in fact, if his children are allowed to live in the country, why should it be that difficult for him?
However, the movie’s culmination, a so-called “climax” compensates for all the negativity. The ending represents the point where all the story lines in the film come together, and there is a danger of Xavier’s secrets being spilled out all at the same time. It is worth watching a movie just for this hilarious ending sequence.
🍎 Although Chinese Puzzle may lack the character depth or novelty of the two previous films in the series, it has other pluses to compensate for the losses, for example, a great cast, good acting and genuinely funny moments. It is a light, funny situational comedy that is both sweet and enjoyable; a must-see for any Klapisch fan.
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Light, funny, sweet, enjoyable; and starring Cecile de France and Audrey Tautou? Sold.