Russian Dolls (Les poupées russes)

France (2005) Dir. Cédric Klapisch

Russian Dolls is the second film in what has become known as the Spanish Apartment Trilogy from French writer-director Cédric Klapisch, appearing three years after the original film Pot Luck. It is not really fair to call this a sequel as such since most of the original cast barely feature here, making this closer to a trilogy born of the same oeuvre in that respect, even with the same principal characters.

Set five years after Pot Luck, the catalyst for brining the main cast from the first film back together again is the wedding of William (Kevin Bishop) to Russian ballerina Natasha (Evguenya Obraztsova). However the focus is firmly and almost exclusively on Xavier (Romain Duris), the narrator of the first film. Once a straight laced economics student, Xavier is now a struggling writer and apparent serial shagger, with a different bed mate with the arrival of every new day.

Resorting to working on trashy pulp novels, ghostwriting memoirs or scripting a low rent daytime TV soap opera, Xavier laments for his career along with the stability of his love life in the wake of his split with fiancée Martine (Audrey Tautou), now with a young son, Lucas (Amin Djakliou), by another man. Things look up when Xavier gets the chance to work on the memoirs of young British model Celia Shelburn (Lucy Gordon), who is based in Paris but the book needs to be in English. This leads to Xavier commuting between Paris and London where he writes the book with old housemate Wendy (Kelly Reilly), herself a TV screenwriter.

It’s not really a spoiler to reveal that predictably most of the women Xavier encounters become another notch on his bedpost, although this is not about him suddenly becoming a libidinous lothario but someone still looking for “the one”. The story does clumsily create a vicious circle for our hapless protagonist however in which he gets close to forming a relationship then ruins it with a random bonk. It is not always his fault mind – he and Wendy seem to get closer but she finds it hard to break out of a tough relationship with the thuggish Edward (Gary Love), sending mixed message to Xavier who goes back on the prowl.

In terms of delivering a satisfying French romantic comedy drama Klapisch fulfils this remit competently enough; as mentioned at the beginning central it is difficult to view this as a direct sequel when the central cadre from Pot Luck which made up the unique blend of European personalities are largely absent. Certainly Wendy becomes an integral figure in the plot and Belgian lesbian Isabelle (Cécile De France), who is now a TV news anchor, features heavily in the first half but the rest get just over five minutes total of screen time at the wedding.

Forgive the semantics here as there are plenty of connecting factors between the two films, but by virtue of featuring just one of the main characters, this could just as easily be regarded as a spin-off more than a sequel. Perhaps there were circumstances which rendered the actors unavailable, forcing them to be reduced to cameo status; in which case I can sympathise with Klapisch and compliment on making the most out of what he had.

At two hours long the story doesn’t feel substantial enough to justify this run time with plenty of apparent padding in the first act. In fact it is not unfair to say that very little happens in the first forty-five minutes outside of Xavier trying to find suitable employment and Martine giving him the run around. As if to distract us from this Klapisch employs a number of visual tricks, such as split screen and digital effects to spice things up and, much like the first film, hint that this will be a fanciful comedy romp when in fact the comedy slips into the background during the second act.

Part of the problem is that Xavier has lost much of his innocence from the first film and his new Casanova persona isn’t very likeable. Female fans of Roman Duris possibly won’t mind seeing this though as he is often undressed or naked (male viewers get some female treats too) but as the central protagonist, his actions leave a lot to be desired. For instance, Martine takes advantage of him regarding Lucas but gives him nothing in return yet they end up sleeping together before her rejects her again. Make your mind up, son!

With Wendy and Isabelle both being the only other cast members to have a subplot in Pot Luck it makes sense to continue those in this film although it would have been nice to see how the others got on over the five years. William’s changed character feels forced since it is a complete 180 turn and is handled in a shameless twee manner, from his initial double take discovery of his gamine future bride to the fact Will spent a year learning Russian so he could woo her – subtle this isn’t and wouldn’t seem out of place in a Richard Curtis movie.

The fact Pot Luck was such a success means Klapisch tapped into something which spoke to a wide audience with the student flat share situation. The follow up is obvious fertile ground for exploration but the direction the story has taken bears little resemblance to the first which might be its undoing for anyone expecting a direct sequel. Klapisch clearly knows what he is doing so maybe this shift in focus was by design, and judging by the positive reactions this film has received he has again seems to have struck a chord with his audience.

As someone who was only mildly impressed with Pot Luck but like the concept, Russian Dolls works well as a standard rom com but for this writer, it comes across as an adjunct than a genuine follow up, albeit and enjoyable if overlong and conventional one.