Chinese Puzzle (2013)
Editor’s Note: Chinese Puzzle opens in limited release on Friday, May 16th
It’s a certain sign of its small success that one might be surprised to find Chinese Puzzle’s a sequel. Cédric Klapisch’s comedy, checking in with the characters he introduced in 2002’s The Spanish Apartment and last looked in on with Russian Dolls in 2005, welcomes new viewers with open arms. And while the series’ fans will find fuller reward in following these figures as they stumble forward into middle-age, Klapisch is keen to keep things sufficiently standalone for all to be accommodated. That’s an appropriate angle for a film that’s less keen on narrative than the nuance of everyday life; Chinese Puzzle is not so much about trying to put a picture together as standing back and looking at the assembled pieces’ funny shapes.
And while the series’ fans will find fuller reward in following these figures as they stumble forward into middle-age, Klapisch is keen to keep things sufficiently standalone for all to be accommodated.
Its insight to life is slight, and Klapisch knows it; a recurring gag has Xavier, the central writer figure played with plucky charm by Romain Duris, having hallucinatory conversations with the philosophers of yore. “All nothingness is the nothing of something,” Hegel tells him as he stares stupidly on, a lost look like a tellingly tongue-in-cheek disavowal of such depth appearing on his face. No, Chinese Puzzle hasn’t a whole lot more to say than “life’s a lot of work sometimes”, and that moral’s no problem when meted out with such a pleasant platter of coy comedy on the side. Klapisch, if never a great deal else, is a pretty witty writer: “It’s funny that you find life so complicated,” a love interest tells Xavier; under the auspices of this script, it really rather is.
But if the assorted adulterous antics on hand enact efficient amusement, it’s at the cost of any kind of care for the characters here. Klapisch’s haphazard script structure has Xavier recalling his recent move to New York to his editor over Skype, a device that’s just tedious after a time. His issues, and those of the various women in his life, from pregnant lesbian BFF Cécile De France to visiting old flame Audrey Tatou, are typically only trifling things, tough to engage with as he airily explains them. The film feels forever on the verge of bohemian bacchanalia; that nobody in it ever seems to worry about money is an odd about-face for the man whose last movie was My Piece of the Pie.
But if the assorted adulterous antics on hand enact efficient amusement, it’s at the cost of any kind of care for the characters here.
The levity of their lives and the ease with which they endanger them, then, makes of Xavier and co. a bunch a little boring to be around, only earning our ears with the good lines they give them. Still, there’s a certain sense of self-awareness to their less auspicious aspects; in a movie given over to the familiar foibles of life, the characters’ kinks come as a reminder of our own. Schopenhauer shows up at one point, woven picture in hand, to tell Xavier how we’re like the back of them as we age: all frayed fibres, but still with the image intact. Chinese Puzzle isn’t much different: it’s easy, even ugly, to see how the movie’s put together, but it’s still a nice little picture it’s made.
That’s especially true of those shots where Klapisch gives cinematographer Natasha Braier free reign, as an early eye-catcher with Xavier framed at the desk through a window. It’s a fine-looking film, if a little too set in its split-screen ways and the affectation of the odd animated interlude. Such scenes feel more like a matter of course than anything else, a perfectly passable if perhaps prim way to tell this tale. And isn’t that apt, in its own little way? From the opening shot of eyes gazed at a blinking cursor to the closing line that’s awful, though aware, Chinese Puzzle isn’t so much about looking at life-as-lived as it is about laughing at the way we want to write it.
Chinese Puzzle hasn’t a whole lot more to say than “life’s a lot of work sometimes”, and that moral’s no problem when meted out with such a pleasant platter of coy comedy on the side.