The road stops here for the travels of young Xavier, as Cédric Klapisch’s Chinese Puzzle takes on fatherhood and the mind-bending complexity of modern living.
The Best Of Youth by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
The third and allegedly final instalment in Cédric Klapisch’s globetrotting trilogy, Chinese Puzzle follows Xavier and his motley crew of friends across the Atlantic to the honorary “European” city of New York. It’s ten years on and Xavier, Martine, Wendy and Isabelle are now in their forties – married, divorced and with kids in tow. And it’s fitting that the Big Apple provides the backdrop for Klapisch’s Casse-Tête Chinois, named after those wooden interlocking puzzles it’s almost impossible to disentangle. Just as L’Auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls took their titles from idioms describing Xavier’s state of mind, abandoning himself to the potluck of an Erasmus year in Spain, or trying to find a fiancée in his thirties, desperate to see which of his matroshkas will turn out to be the last, so too does Chinese Puzzle reveal Xavier’s complicated forties – moving to New York to be nearer his kids, getting married for a green card and fathering his lesbian friend’s baby. Life doesn’t get any easier. Only this time, he’s got a New York state of mind.
Xavier (Romain Duris) is running through the streets of New York, two kids in tow and late for his wedding to a Chinese bride. After years of marriage, he’s now divorced from Wendy (Kelly Reilly), who fell in love with an American while away on business. So when she ups sticks to Manhattan with their children, Xavier decides to follow – taking the writing of his new book with him and kipping on his friend Isabelle (Cécile de France) and her girlfriend’s floor. Finding an apartment in the Big Apple sure ain’t easy, but after he fathers a baby for Isabelle and Ju (Sandrine Holt), he moves into Ju’s old apartment in Chinatown, lugging mattresses across the Lower East Side and painting the apartment turquoise with the kids. And soon, when Martine (Audrey Tautou) arrives in town on business, an old romance is reignited. But as parents, and on the other side of the Atlantic, is it all just too complicated?
Like Richard Linklater’s similarly themed Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight (also incidentally taking place all over Europe – in Vienna, Paris and on a Greek island), there’s also something very autobiographical about the Xavier’s Travels trilogy, culminating here in Chinese Puzzle. But if Xavier’s travels started on an Erasmus year in Barcelona, for Klapisch it all began in New York, where the director was a foreign student himself. And with Xavier now a published writer, he makes an obvious stand-in for the French filmmaker – puzzling over life and all its complications, juggling work, family and location, and turning it into art.
But, now that Klapisch has a son of his own, it’s parenthood under the microscope – from Xavier’s life-changing decision to emigrate to NYC just to be close to the children to the frenetic multitasking of Skyping his publisher while playing with the kids, it’s fatherhood at its most fierce, tender and natural. Of course, Xavier is now terrified of becoming an absent father like his own. And much like Xavier’s estranged father, director Benoît Jacquot (Villa Amalia) makes an unexpected appearance. Xavier and his father now have something in common – both fathers and somehow reunited in a complicit silence on an Eighth Avenue sidewalk. And it’s almost as if Xavier is made whole, simultaneously father and son, and reassured by his fleeting father of the love he held for Xavier’s mother, marked in concrete on a Manhattan street corner, above (or perhaps lurking beneath) the passage of time.
The brain-teasing complications of fatherhood (and modern living) provide the brain food for Klapisch’s French farce – as Xavier runs wildly from one responsibility to the next, juggling publisher, children, lovers and friends. Like the Chinese cabbie on West 14th Street, who thinks he’s driving on a grid, but is in fact heading into a maze of one-way streets in the West Village, life is deceptively complicated – a comedy of errors between marrying an enthusiastic Chinese niece (after saving the life of his taxi-driver), falling in love with the same girl twice, becoming a biological father to his lesbian best friend’s daughter, negotiating icy relationships with his ex-wife and running back to save Isabelle (having sex with her nubile and devout young babysitter in his apartment) from being discovered by Ju. Like the tessellating titles, and the appearances of Erasmus, Hegel and Kierkegaard, it’s a familiar device – a repeat of Xavier’s run back to their apartment in Barcelona in L’Auberge Espagnole to save Wendy from discovery. But it’s charming and funny as well as comfortably familiar, and culminating in an emotional scene of Xavier and his women sitting in the subway, Chinese Puzzle is an exquisitely involving kind of chaos.
Chinese Puzzle is released on 20th June 2014 in the UK