Chinese Puzzle is the third installment of a series begun by writer-director Cedric Klapisch in 2002 with L’Auberge Espagnole. The original movie, about a house full of exchange students from all over Europe, introduced a half-dozen appealing characters and, at the same time, seemed to symbolize the confidence of the still-new European Union.
Klapisch lost that universal feeling in his 2005 follow-up, Russian Dolls, which concentrated on the burgeoning writing career of Xavier (Romain Duris), as well as on his growing affection for Wendy (Kelly Reilly), the British roommate from his student days.
But some of that universal quality is back with Chinese Puzzle, which begins with the collapse of Xavier and Wendy’s marriage and deals with the challenges of turning 40.
Yes, time flies after you leave school, but it was never worse than for these people: In 2002, they were all supposed to be in their early 20s. Now, just 11 years later — the movie was released in France last summer — they’re all hitting middle age.
At least they have the compensations of money: Xavier is a successful novelist who writes semi-fictional books about his own life. Wendy dumps Xavier for a rich guy with an apartment overlooking Central Park. When Xavier follows her to New York, he stays with his Belgian lesbian friend (Cecile de France), who has an enormous loft in Brooklyn. Yes, everybody is loaded — even old flame Martine (Audrey Tautou), who shows up in town for a high-level business meeting.
All this insane good fortune could be annoying, in that it makes you think the filmmaker doesn’t know any broke people. But the characters are engaging, and the movie holds our interest from one incident to the next. It hardly matters that we don’t believe for a minute that Xavier could write something anyone would want to read, or that we can’t possibly buy the bumbling Martine as an international wheeler-dealer.
Klapisch still gets these characters to sneak up and make us care about them — though it might help if you remember them from when they were young.
Cast: Romain Duris, Kelly Reilly, Cecile de France, Audrey Tautou.
Writer-director: Cedric Klapisch.
A Cohen Media Group release. Running time: 117 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Vulgar language, sexual content, nudity. Opens Friday May 30 in Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.