Film Review: Chinese Puzzle (Casse-tête chinois) (France, 2013)

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The film, Chinese Puzzle (Casse-tête chinois) could be re-named “Xavier’s Travels” or “It’s Complicated”. The French film and final instalment in director and writer, Cédric Klapisch’s trilogy puts middle-aged life and all of its vagaries and difficulties under the microscope. In some ways the John Lennon quote, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” has never seemed more appropriate.

Audiences were first introduced to Xavier Rousseau (Romain Duris) and his friends in L’Auberge Espagnole (The Spanish Apartment) where he was a student living in a share house in Barcelona. In the follow-up, Russian Dolls (Les poupées russes) the group hit their dirty thirties and have to negotiate love, relationships and fidelity. In Chinese Puzzle the now-40 year olds are living in New York because Rousseau’s former wife, Wendy (Kelly Reilly) has fallen in love with an American man and decided to take the two children with her. This leaves Xavier with little choice but to follow her to the streets of New York.

Xavier is once again an utterly charming, likeable and articulate character. Here, he is writing a novel, the eponymous, Chinese Puzzle, for a drama-hungry editor. The book is supposed to be a story about his tricky life because not only must he grapple for the custody of his own children but he employs a sleazy lawyer who encourages him to marry an American in order to get a green card. Life is much more complicated than that however, as Xavier’s old flame, Martine (the feisty, Audrey Tautou (Amélie, Coco avant Chanel)) re-enters the picture while his outgoing buddy, Isabelle (Cécile De France) asks Xavier to be a father so she and her lesbian lover (Sandrine Holt) can become parents.

This light and funny tale jumps around in space and time as Xavier remembers different episodes from his life and tells these alongside current events. This is also whilst he is asking for advice from some philosophers (in order to try and make sense of it all). The ensemble cast put on an excellent show and really manage to capture the unusual quirkiness, farce and confusion that underpins this strange, modern life. In many ways this absurdist, romantic comedy with its New York City backdrop and keen pop psychology observations about relationships share at least a few things in common with some of Woody Allen’s best work.

Chinese Puzzle will certainly appeal to fans of the series (who will appreciate the subtle jokes and links to the previous films) but it also contains enough information about the main characters and their back stories to allow it to be appreciated and enjoyed as a stand-alone film. Ultimately, this movie is a feel-good romp that veers off into a number of strange trajectories and messes but at the same time it remains heart-warming, unique and fun. This bubbly rom-com is highly entertaining, sharp and mysterious and proves that in life all you need is love and a barrel full of laughs in order to succeed.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

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Chinese Puzzle opens in cinemas on April 17.