Chinese Puzzle: Audrey Tautou and Her Gallic Cohort Invade New York

Chinese Puzzle

Opens Fri., May 30 at Seven Gables. Rated R. 117 minutes.

In three agreeable films covering about a dozen years for his main quartet of characters, now 40-ish, Cédric Klapisch has also grown up as a director. He still embraces the messy, multilingual, bed-hopping, city-jumping complexity of life, which began in Barcelona with 2002’s L’Auberge Espagnole and continued to St. Petersburg and beyond with 2005’s Russian Dolls. Here Klapisch keeps the comedy, street chases, and indecisiveness that plague his novelist hero Xavier (Romain Duris), but I think Chinese Puzzle is the best of the three pictures—largely because it rests on the foundation of the prior two, much like Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise trilogy.

The self-absorbed but not exactly selfish Xavier is forced to decamp from Paris to New York, following his ex, Wendy (Kelly Reilly), mother of their two children, who’s found a new man in the Big Apple. With limited English and a half-completed manuscript (essentially the film we’re watching), Xavier crashes in the Brooklyn loft of Isabelle (Cécile de France) and her lesbian partner, who previously asked him to father a baby for them. Later in the film, unattached Martine (Audrey Tautou) arrives with her two kids, bringing the number of children to five, divided among three improvised families (or four, if you count a green-card marriage).

Think back to L’Auberge Espagnole and you’ll recall a sense of life improvised on the fly among those impressionable, transnational students. Now adults, constantly communicating by text, e-mail, and Skype, they seem equally unmoored from any country or ideology beyond shared experience. That sense of community—including infidelities and rivalries—is what keeps our foursome connected despite their travels. For them, culture shock is a permanent condition; and their emblem seems to be the rolling suitcase that careens down the sidewalk of each strange new city. That Klapisch gives Xavier a job as a bicycle messenger seems a little too ’80s, but that’s when the director attended NYU. And the gig is all about route-finding, appropriate to Xavier’s ever-spinning compass needle. With animated subway maps, Craigslist ads, and Google Street View to assist him, Xavier writes an ode to the impossibly meandering West 11th Street. “I’ve got a problem with Point B,” he sighs.

Xavier’s editor pleads, “Could you knock out something a little more linear?” To that, both Xavier and his creator offer a polite shrug to the contrary. If life pushes you in the wrong direction, it’s probably the right direction.

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