Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Chinese Puzzle (2014) – Review

Review: Chinese Puzzle is a very good romantic drama/comedy; and it serves as a nice conclusion to writer-director Cedric Klapisch’s trilogy following Xavier Rousseau’s love life.

The film is about Xavier Rousseau, a Frenchman who married an Englishwoman (Wendy) and has two children with her. They were very happy for ten years of marriage, until one day the love was gone. Wendy has decided to leave Paris and move to New York to be with a new man, taking the children with her. Xavier cannot stand to be away from his children and thus decides that he too will move to New York; however, once in the city he finds that he is faced with a whole new array of problems – he needs a job but is not an American citizen or green card holder and is only in the country on a tourist visa, he needs a place to stay but everything in New York is crummy and expensive, and he needs to find a way to finish his latest novel but has all this other stuff consuming his life, including being a good dad and spending time with his kids. In all this craziness and complication, can Xavier also find love again?

Klapisch’s trilogy has been about growing up and discovering who you are and want kind of love you need to make you happy. For Xavier, life always seems too complicated, as he is constantly wrapped up in multicultural/multilingual adventures, which leads him to constantly over-obsess about how difficult it is for him to find love – often getting in his own way. With Chinese Puzzle, Xavier feels much more grown up, as he is now in his forties, and yet he still seems fixated on the same questions and issues (but from a position of more experience). Xavier seems, however, finally ready to accept the circumstances of his life and not constantly dream of something else.

This works too for the viewers – especially those who have followed the series from film to film. L’Auberge Espagnole sees Xavier in his twenties and Russian Dolls sees him in his thirties. Xavier’s growth from film to film mirrors something very relatable in our own lives. We too are constantly searching for what we think or hope will make us happy, and often that revolves around finding love. In L’Auberge Espagnole, Xavier does not know what he wants and his time in Barcelona serves as true experience of awakening for him. He grows up a lot, ultimately realizing that he wants to be a writer, giving up economics (which sent him to study in Spain in the first place). In Russian Dolls Xavier is frustrated by his inability to find a substantial love, not immediately realizing that the girl for him very well might be Wendy who he is working with writing a script for a trashy TV-movie. In the end, Xavier realizes that in fact Wendy is the girl for him. But as is the case with life, things change and Chinese Puzzle finds the once happy couple at its end.

Chinese Puzzle and Russian Dolls are similar in many ways, as they both focus on Xavier searching for a way to simplify his life while being overwhelmed by its complication (or perceived complication). The main difference, however, is that in Chinese Puzzle, Xavier has grown up and his priorities have shifted. He is no longer chiefly concerned with finding love, but rather he wants to be involved in his children’s lives as much as possible, finding it difficult when he is sort of a fish-out-of-water arriving to start a new life in New York City (though, he does have a lot of help from his friend Isabelle).

The narrative decision to have Xavier try to become a citizen by marrying an American (not for love, but for the perks) is nothing new to romantic comedy premises, but Klapisch turns it on its end in a fun way. Firstly, the American girl that Xaiver marries is a Chinese-American whose parents have recently immigrated to America (she is a first generation American), when generally a girl such as this would be the one looking for a green card or citizenship through marriage. And secondly, Klapisch never introduces a love subplot to their arrangement, when the genre seemingly demands one (I expected it to happen until the bitter end – that is how ingrained rom-com troupes are in today’s narratives).

The film, however, seems to have too easy a happy ending, things wrapping up in a nice cute bow, which does ultimately take a little away from the film as a whole – especially if considered as a standalone narrative. For fans of the series, though, it does seem satisfying too. Xavier is able to get things together in New York, narrowly missing total disaster multiple times, while also finding what could be the great love of his life. Xavier has it all in the end, and has matured into the sort of man I think we all might aspire to be. Plus, all the main characters in the narrative find themselves in a good place in the end. Again, this feels a little too rom-com clichéd, given the cynical world that we seem to live in now, but it is also hopeful that we too will find happiness in our own lives, and in the end the film and series leaves its viewers happy (which is sort of a necessary evil of the genre right?).

The film succeeds thanks to its great leading characters and the strong character work that Klapisch has done across the series. Xavier, Martine, Isabelle, and Wendy all feel like fully realized real people – something that is quite rare in romantic comedies (this is a rom-com, despite the high level of drama because it ends happily). The film is also extremely funny – like the trilogy as a whole. Xavier constantly finds himself is awkward and comical situations that play fantastically for laughs.

Klapisch establishes a very modern artistic visual style in L’Auberge Espognole with a non-linear narrative, eccentric editing, and fantasy elements all blended together, and this continues through Russian Dolls and Chinese Puzzle, but it does not seem as much of an emphasis in Chinese Puzzle. Rather, Klapisch lets his characters take center stage a bit more, playing the narrative more straightforward, showing a maturity in his style as a filmmaker, following the characters’ own arcs.

Finally, Klapisch has made a film that feels much more multicultural and apart of New York City than most American films set in the city (which is funny, given that he is a French filmmaker making a film primarily for French audiences). The film is filled with many races and cultures, as well as many languages. Klapisch also shoots most of his scenes in the streets on New York (not Vancouver or Toronto or somewhere that is not New York City), giving the feeling of what the city is really like – and, he does not only limit himself to the city’s iconic landmarks (as they are almost completely left out – although, one can see the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, One World Trade Center, among other landmarks in the background of certain shots). While not specifically being about New York, it completely captures its spirit – what it is like to live in the city (and not just visit as a tourist).

Chinese Puzzle works as a standalone narrative, but is surely a much more satisfying film for those who have seen the two films that proceed it in the trilogy. It is a great romantic comedy, built on wonderful characters, humor, and strong dramatic (and even philosophical) moments.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Cedric Klapisch is a very stylish aesthetic director, but one who lets his characters be the focus (generally). His work feels much more pop-culture driven than many of his contemporaries in France, which allows his Xavier trilogy to work very well for American audiences. It is a French film, but feels very American too. I highly recommend L’Auberge Espagnole (my favorite of his films) and Russian Dolls as well as Chinese Puzzle – it is a fantastic modern trilogy (maybe a more pop version of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise trilogy). I also like Klapisch’s film Paris.

Composer Christophe Minck (who also scored Russian Dolls) provides the same type of music for Chinese Puzzle as featured in the its predecessors; however, I found it to be a bit too much, too quirky at times. That said, Minck does get the music for the dramatic moments just right. Cinematographer Natasha Braier is a bit of a rising star. Here, she does excellent work, as the film is beautifully shot, and Braier wonderfully captures New York City. Production designers Roshelle Berliner and Marie Cheminal do very good work staging New York and Paris (Berliner designing the scene in NYC and Cheminal in Paris). The cities feel authentic and not fake as they sometimes do in popular mediums.

The cast as a whole is superb (as they are across the entire trilogy), aptly handling comedy and drama. Sandrine Holt, Peter McRobbie, Jason Kravits, and Li Jun Li are all very good in smaller supporting roles.  Pablo Mugnier-Jacob and Margaux Mansart are also very good as Xavier and Wendy’s children. Kelly Reilly has the difficult role of playing the character that sets the narrative in motion, as Wedny she ends her relationship with Xavier and takes their kids to America. Reilly does this quite gracefully, never feeling like the bad guy (even though the narrative is primarily told from Xavier’s perspective). She is a very good foil for Xavier, allowing him to express all the pain he is feeling, as she has a fantastic steely resolve (but it is also nice to see her come apart in moments too). Cecile De France has a ton of fun with Isabelle (as always) a woman who has a good thing going for her but is a bit reckless with her love life even so. She too is a good foil for Xavier, allowing him a good friend to confide in. Audrey Tautou has a bigger role with each film, but in Chinese Puzzle finally becomes a main character. Her history with Xavier is something that is probably vital for full enjoyment of the narrative. Here, Tautou is a model of emotional maturity for Xavier – someone who he can finally feel at home with (even if he does not realize it initially). She has excellent rage, hitting comedic and dramatic moments with equal skill. Romain Duris is fantastic as Xavier. He is incredibly charming, funny, and caring – but also feels real as those qualities are counter balanced by a short temper, selfishness, and sometimes emotional vagueness. Duris can pull off cool effortlessly, while still feeling emotionally accessible (no small trick). The trilogy is well worth your time if for nothing else than to see his excellent performance and Xavier’s transformation.

Summary & score: Chinese Puzzle is a strong and fresh romantic drama/comedy that will likely please fans of L’Auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls, serving as the trilogy’s final chapter. 7/10

No comments:

Post a Comment