For a movie that pivots, philosophically at least, around the fact that life is best lived in its moments of searing drama, a conceit dreamt up by the editor of Xavier (Romain Dupris), a successful novelist billed as the “next Proust”, Chinese Puzzle is largely a bubbly, whimsical New York-based slice of life that can’t help but warm the heart.
Now nearing 40, and divorced from his English wife Wendy (Kelly Reilly), life is not as carefree for the happy-go-lucky Xavier, a man who admits he has changed directions one too many times in life, resulting in a life that is a “f**king mess”, the chinese puzzle of the title.
Initially, as he reels from his divorce, and the moving of his ex-wife and much loved kids Tom (Pablo Mugnier-Jacob) and Mia (Margaux Mansart) to New York so Wendy can marry wealthy John (Peter Hermann), he is inclined to wonder if life hasn’t fallen down some irredeemable hole from which there is no digging out, and whether his editor is right after all, both about his life and his new book.
None of this sits uncomfortably with the broken-hearted but eternally optimistic Xavier, who takes off for a new life in New York almost overnight, joining his BFF Isabelle (Cécile De France), who is pregnant with his baby, and her Chinese-American girlfriend Ju (Sandrine Holt) in their loft, and doing his best to fashion a life that isn’t defined by what he is lost.
The third instalment in Cédric Klapisch’s trilogy – L’Auberge Espagnole (Spanish Apartment, 2002) and Russian Dolls (2005) saw the meeting and the settling down of Xavier’s extended clan of close friends which includes Martine (Audrey Tautou), his romantic interest from the first film – Chinese Puzzle is all about what happens when the gloss has worn off life and you have to deal with the tarnished tangle that remains.
While that may all sound a bit grim and intensely introspective, fitting in a way since Xavier is joined in key moments of anguish by philosophers Schopenhauer and Hegel who dispense wise-sounding but ultimately meaningless pieces of advice – Klapisch’s engagingly frothy and light film, which isn’t without its moments of requisite tension, concerns itself mostly with moving on rather than wallowing in existential misery.
In quick order, Xavier assumes a week on, week off custody arrangement for the kids with Wendy, gets an off-the-grid job as a bike messenger, moves into Ju’s unoccupied apartment in Chinatown, and marries the bubbly niece, Nancy (Li Jun Li) of a Chinese taxi driver, who he saves from a brutal bashing by an enraged deliveryman.
So far, so good.
It’s hardly ideal in one sense, since Xavier still feels as if he cobbling together a whole lot of Band-Aided solutions to a life that still feels worryingly impermanent and adrift, but he makes the most of it, taking New York to his heart, and growing steadily happier, much to his editor’s chagrin (he is after a tear-soaked dramatic new novel not a light happy tome).
It’s the arrival of Martine, first for a high level business meeting and then for a longer stay over summer, that starts to cement all these polyglot pieces into place.
As Xavier and Martine toy with the idea of whether you can truly go back to what you had, and make it work in the present – no prizes to anyone with even a passing familiarity with rom-com tropes whether they answer in the affirmative or not – and their lives begin to link inextricably with the zealously chaotic but fundamentally alive city around them (this is New York as the cradle of The American Dream), life begins to look a little less like the disaster that Xavier briefly assumed it was destined to be.
Unencumbered by a heavy-handed or meaningful narrative, Klapisch main goal with Chinese Puzzle is to explore what happens when all the endless optimism of youth is expended and life has taken more than its pound of flesh from you.
What do you do then? Give in to soulless misery, assuming the best is behind you? Or race off into the future once again, trusting that if following your heart has worked for you once, it will work again?
Thankfully, the film doesn’t pretend that any of this is easy to bring about.
The costs to Xavier are both financial and existential at times as he deals with looming poverty, half-arsed lawyers and immigration officials trying to verify the validity of his Greencard marriage, not to mention being complicit in the covering up Isabelle’s affair with their daughter’s babysitter Isabelle (Flora Bonaventura) which results in a half-realised farcical scene towards the end of the movie when all parties converge on Xavier’s small, cramped apartment.
Burt ultimately, the message, much to the dislike of Xavier’s editor, is that rebirth is possible, that its still worth taking some chances no matter how worn down you might feel, and that the ties of family and friends are never really loosed, no matter how far you might venture from home.