Cedric Klapisch tells us that life’s a complicated business in “Chinese Puzzle,” and certainly the life of its main character, Xavier Rousseau (Romain Duris), is. But whether this final installment of the writer-director’s trilogy, which began with “L’auberge espagnole” and continued with “Russian Dolls,” is worth two hours of your time is a doubtful proposition.
Xavier is a writer who’s had two children with his long-time English girlfriend Wendy (Kelly Reilly). Their relationship changes when Xavier agrees to be a sperm donor for his lesbian friend Isabelle (Cecile de France), who’s moving to New York to be with her Chinese-American girlfriend Ju (Sandrine Holt). During a business trip to New York Wendy meets an American man (Peter Hermann), and before long she announces her intention to move there to be with him, taking the kids with her.
Xavier decides to follow her there, and the rest of the film basically details the unpredictable situations that follow—events that he relates in a barrage of narration to his publisher back home as he struggles to turn them into a book. Initially he moves in with Isabelle and Ju, but soon finds himself in Ju’s old apartment above a Chinese restaurant. He and Wendy also have some differences about how the kids are being raised, which leads him to consult a seedy lawyer; but that story thread is worked out when the two reach a friendly custody arrangement and Xavier handles his legal status in America by marrying—though in name only—a Chinese-American girl (Ji Jun Li), the niece of a cabdriver he rescued from a beating in a traffic altercation.
Xavier also gets a job as a bicycle messenger, though little is made of that. Instead he must deal with the fact that Isabelle takes up secretly with her young babysitter (Flore Bonaventura), leading to some slamming-door-style comedy as Ju threatens to find out about her infidelity. Even more importantly, Martine (Audrey Tautou), an ex-girlfriend of his, arrives in New York with her two children in tow, and before long they’re involved again—even though he’s involved in a marriage of convenience that the INS is investigating.
The message of “Chinese Puzzle” is no deeper or more surprising than the one offered by a television program like “Modern Family”: society is different from what it once was, and the community is more global and polyglot than formerly, so make your terms with it. It’s a reasonable enough position to take, and Klapisch certainly manages to construct an interlocking medley of stories to convey it. Visually his approach, abetted by cinematographer Natasha Braier and editor Ane-Sophie Bion, is loose and limber, though apart from a few instances of animation in the early going, he makes less use of the cinematic pizzazz he did in “L’auberge.” The background score—by Loik Dury and Christophe “Disco” Minck, with some songs interspersed—also adds to the feeling of exuberance.
Ultimately, though, for all its surface verve and polish, the film never goes very deep. The title comes to seem entirely appropriate since the characters are superficially drawn, coming across as pieces that are being moved about to form an overall portrait rather than as living, breathing people. (When one sequence has Xavier’s long-absent father suddenly appear for a brief visit that brings some light to his son’s condition, it feels like another box being checked off.) A revelatory moment arrives toward the close when Wendy, Martine and Isabelle laughingly tell Xavier that what he really needs is a woman who’s a combination of all of them—a diagnosis of his perplexity that’s reminiscent of what Guido learns in Fellini’s “8 ½ ,” but never reaches the existential recognition that film did. There’s also a hint of Woody Allen in the device Klapisch uses on a couple of occasions, having the figures of German philosophers (Schopenhauer and Hegel) appear to Xavier to offer him advice from their writings. It’s a neat idea, but one that seems arbitrary here and is quickly dropped.
If the characters are basically one-dimensional, however, they’re certainly inhabited by actors who are uniformly talented and agreeable. Duris makes Xavier more ingratiating than irritating, and the women and children in his life are all well played, with Tautou, as usual, standing out.
“Chinese Puzzle” is sporadically amusing and touching, but also overly precious, and it never comes together as an authentic emotional experience. Frankly, if you’d like to see Klapisch at his best, you might search out his pre-trilogy film, “When the Cat’s Away.”