Capturing basic human interactions on film isn’t as easy as you’d think. Too often screenwriters and directors retreat into cliched dialogue and stock characters to the point where the people on screen feel as artificial as any rampaging CG monster. Cédric Klapisch’s Chinese Puzzle is different though, effortlessly serving up a blizzard of well observed moments, shifting relationships and fragments of honest emotion. This is that annoyingly rare thing: a film that really understands the complexities – the soaring joys and the crushing miseries – of modern love.
Our hero is Xavier Rousseau (Romain Duris), a 40 year old writer navigating some pretty choppy relationship waters. Framed through a Skype conversation with his publisher, we track his friendships and romances with three women; businesswoman and old flame Martine (Audrey Tautou), his lesbian best friend Isabelle (Cecile de France), and Wendy (Kelly Reilly), his estranged ex-wife and mother of his two children. The story is gently chronologically jumbled, but the thrust of the plot is that Wendy plans to move from Paris to New York with Xavier’s two young children and Xavier decides to follow. The bulk of the film is spent in New York watching Xavier pick his way through unfamiliar territory, whether that be dealing with immigration troubles, arranging for visitation rights to his children, sorting out his financial woes or searching for his own place within the urban warren of the Big Apple.
It was only after thoroughly enjoying Chinese Puzzle that I learnt that its the final instalment of a trilogy (comprising of The Spanish Apartment and Russian Dolls – neither of which I’ve seen). Fortunately, the film works beautifully as a standalone product. Complex though Xavier’s situation might be, they’re built on a bedrock of universal experience, making it easy to pick up the threads and follow what’s going on. That I could ease into the final part of a trilogy so seamlessly is largely down to a warm script stuffed with insightful observations that ring true.
Xavier is an unusually easy character to identify with: a man in possession of a strong moral core, yet nervy about living in a world he perceives as chaotic and disordered. Played with an easy-going charm and a big toothy smile, Romain Duris brings out the best in this affable chap, plaiting together a youthful coolness, a loving paternity and a romantic heroism into a character whose shoes its deeply pleasurable to wear.
He’s the prism through which we view the three main women in his life; each of whom is developed nicely into a person with their own hopes, desires and ambitions. Another impressive aspect of the script’s architecture is how organically these women’s stories intersect with Xavier’s – even when they’re not on screen you sense their stories continuing off-camera, the film trusting the audience’s emotional intelligence to be able to deduce what’s happening offscreen.
Chinese Puzzle also impresses stylistically. There are frequent digressions into fantasy, as the film shares cinematic DNA with the excellent 500 Days of Summer. Most memorable is a scene where Xavier has agreed to donate sperm to help Isabelle and her partner Ju have a child. Faced with an antiseptic bathroom and a small plastic cup, we see his erotic fantasies come to life – the models literally walking off the pages of Playboy into reality. Here, the film cheekily dons a porny sensibility, one that’s immediately undermined by a perfectly timed cut back to squeezed eyes, gritted teeth and guilty self-pleasure under antiseptic fluorescent light.
These interludes, combined with an tonne of genuinely funny gags and one-liners, work as a nice buffer to the sincerity with which Klapisch treats the wrinkles in these people’s lives. Above all this feels like a film borne of personal experience – one made by someone who knows first hand the conflicting emotions that a father feels when separated from this children, the unexpected places love can be rekindled, and just how damn difficult it is to find a good apartment in New York.
The final character in the film is New York itself. French directors always seem to bring out another side of the city (my favourite is Luc Besson’s weirdly Parisian New York in Leon). Chinese Puzzle‘s New York is one of rooftops and graffiti, of the winding corridors behind Chinatown businesses and sweaty, cluttered offices. There’s a pre-occupation with the asphalt and concrete of the city, the mixed road surfaces turning into a map by which the characters can read the psyche of the city. It’s telling that the one evidence of true love within the film, and the thing that kicks off the optimistic final act, is literally written directly into the cement of the sidewalk.
When I walked into the cinema to see Chinese Puzzle I was a bit tired and stressed, earlier in the day I’d even contemplated skipping it altogether for a quiet night in. Two hours later I was buzzing along the streets of London in a little bubble of happiness. For a film to cheer me up that much is high praise indeed.
Chinese Puzzle is smart, touching and pleasantly human - the epitome of a feel good romantic comedy.