Chinese Puzzle (Casse-tête chinois)

France (2013) Dir. Cédric Klapisch

With this film writer-director Cédric Klapisch brings his Spanish Apartment Trilogy to a close, reuniting the main characters and former flatmates from the previous films – Pot Luck and Russian Dolls – who are all older but in some cases, not any wiser, this time in New York.

As ever at the centre of everything is Xavier (Romain Duris), at 40 years-old now a successful writer but a less successful husband to Wendy (Kelly Reilly), who decides to end their marriage and restart her life in New York with their children and her American lover Jon (Peter Hermann). The tipping point was Xavier providing the DNA for lesbian Isabelle (Cécile De France) and her partner Ju (Sandrine Holt) to have their own child against Wendy’s wishes.

Unable to live without his kids, Xavier decides to follow them to New York, staying in a tiny apartment among the Chinese immigrant community courtesy of Ju’s connections. But Xavier’s visa is only for work and in order for him to stay in the US his shady lawyer (Jason Kravits) suggests he marries a US resident. Then Xavier’s former fiancée Martine (Audrey Tautou) calls Xavier to say she is coming to New York for a business meeting.

The title Chinese Puzzle is apt in describing the litany of mishaps which befall our hapless protagonist whilst appearing a blatant giveaway of the story due to the prominent Chinese presence. The Chinatown setting, the Chinese-American characters playing pivotal roles and Martine’s business trip being with a Chinese company provides this leitmotif yet they remain as backdrops for the many relationship struggles endured by the cast.

Not all of the original cast from Pot Luck make it back – only Xavier and the ladies – leaving room for new characters to expand this elliptical saga and venture into new territory. As much as it is a complex web of romantic pandemonium Klapisch also reflects on the idea that being older – in this case the landmark age of 40 – should mean responsibility and maturity.

Of course the irony is that while Xavier actually does try to behave responsibly in securing a place to live for himself and for his kids, getting a job and sorting his visa out but his old ways prevent him from achieving this in mature and incident free way. But fate has a way of working things out which makes Xavier either very lucky or blessed with an incredible sense of perspicacity.

It is probably more of the former though and it is just as well that this film is billed as a romantic comedy since the twists of fate which befall Xavier do stretch credibility. For instance in finding a willing wife, it took Xavier being the passenger of a Chinese-American taxi driver (Phil Nee) who is beaten up in a road rage incident and taking to hospital by Xavier in his own cab!

When asked by the driver’s family how they could repay him, Xavier jokes they could find him a wife. As it happens the driver has a single (and very attractive) daughter Nancy (Li Jun Li) – what are the odds? – and soon gains a faux French son-in-law. But the fun and games don’t stop there as Isabelle is about to have their baby which will need explaining to the Immigration Office.

Then Martine arrives for her meeting but has nowhere to stay so Xavier puts her up and….yup they have an auld lang syne moment. Martine leaves for France the next day but is soon returns with her two children. Meanwhile motherhood has a strange effect on Isabelle as she forms a crush on the babysitter she hires also named Isabelle (Flore Bonaventura) and begins an affair with her.

Despite the outlandish, but oddly plausible, situations the cast find themselves in this is a character driven series and Klapisch has crafted the well enough to ensure we remain intrigued in where they go and how they acclimatise to their new worlds and handle the slings and arrows life throws at them. Perhaps the holes they dig themselves into would be more accurate since they all seem to make decisions which tempt fate rather than keep it at bay.

Xavier remains the narrator and central figure around which everything seems to occur, more so in this film than its two predecessors, pushing the other characters into the background somewhat, with the exception of Martine who takes on a vital role with her return. Isabelle and Ju’s story is one which could have done with deeper exploration, especially with the progressive issue of lesbian parents. Similarly the sham marriage of Xavier and Nancy is only recalled when a crisis point is needed when there is great potential for it as a source of drama and conflict for Xavier.

In a film that is close to two hours in length the first hour meanders slightly but the final thirty minutes picks up the pace in order to resolve all the built up issues, some quicker than others which exposes the missed opportunities to increase their importance beyond minor distraction subplots. The lighthearted tone of the prior films remains but there is a slightly more cynical undercurrent in place here to offset the occasional silliness.

Since the returning cast – Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Cécile De France and Kelly Reilly – know their characters so well they are able to slip back into them with ease, the passing of time barely an issue. Of the newcomers it would have been nice to see more of Sandrine Holt as Ju and Li Jun Li as Nancy, both characters who demanded more screen time, while a nod also goes to the young actors playing the kids.

Of the trilogy Chinese Puzzle is the most enjoyable and satisfying and brings a resolve to this quirky but very human saga. Like before it needed stronger focus in some areas but overall this was a perfectly fine final chapter.