As those familiar with the previous two installments might have guessed, Chinese Puzzle is a charming example of French romantic comedy that manages to provide plenty of belly laughs without forfeiting its emotional depth. Wrapping up Cédric Klapisch’s The Spanish Apartment trilogy, Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou reprise their roles as Xavier and Martine to tell a mostly self-contained story that’s difficult not to enjoy.
Xavier is a writer with a wife and two kids, but after ten years of marriage his relationship is on a course of irreversible decline. When his wife Wendy (played by Kelly Reilly) informs him she’s met another man, Xavier is begrudgingly accepting. But when she decides to move to New York with the kids in tow, Xavier must also up sticks to the city that never sleeps. Unfortunately for him this also means finding a job, an apartment and eventually gaining US citizenship.
The narrative pinballs from plot point to plot point, moving from parental crisis to romance via infidelity and visiting sperm donation along the way, but for the most part the disparate narrative strands all centre around the approach towards middle age. That the characters are now ‘“almost 40” is brought up repeatedly, as if the death knell is moments away from striking, but this does little to interfere with Xavier who is playful and amiable throughout.
Elsewhere, Tautou is as charming as ever but plays a minimal role until the film’s third act. Regrettably, the women in the film are portrayed, almost without exception, as overly emotional and impulsive – but these flaws at least flesh out their characters in comparison to their male counterparts. Apart from Xavier and his father, the men in Chinese Puzzle are either there for comic effect, like Xavier’s exploitative editor and mercenary lawyer, or are numbingly pleasant, necessitating the strong female performances on display.
The realities of New York living for a foreigner are integrated well into the film, and provide moments of genuine hilarity and warmth. The tone is light and lively throughout and when emotional reality breaks through the film’s happy veneer, it’s only ever for a minute or two before the audience’s attention is quickly directed elsewhere.
The film’s message is a positive one: divorces can eventually be settled amicably, cultures can coexist peacefully, and love can be found at any time. While many will find the ending a little unsatisfying, Chinese Puzzle succeeds as an entertaining romantic comedy with an edge that many will find compelling.
Joe Manners Lewis
Chinese Puzzle is released nationwide on 20th June 2014.
Watch the trailer for Chinese Puzzle here: