Film Review: The French-English Hybrid 'Chinese Puzzle' Celebrates Complicated Lives
There's a scene in Cédric Klapisch's warm, exuberant comedy Chinese Puzzle that perfectly captures both the beauty and complications of a life well lived. A discussion between two men (one living, one a hallucination) proposes that a piece of embroidery is an apt metaphor for the human condition: on one side is a lovely picture of a moment captured in time. But turned over, one sees all of the knotty entanglements.
Romain Duris, one of French cinema's most reliable leading men, plays Xavier, a Paris-based novelist whose ex-wife, Wendy (Kelly Reilly), is about to move to New York City with their son and daughter and a new American beau. Feeling that his kids are too dear and the ocean too broad a barrier, he also relocates there while he works on his latest book. One of his best friends already lives there: Isabelle (a luminous Cécile De France), one-half of a lesbian couple who ends up carrying a baby with the donation of Xavier's sperm.
Xavier struggles to find an apartment in economically restrictive Manhattan, but lands a scruffy walk-up in Chinatown owned by Isabelle's partner, Ju (Sandrine Holt). In order to stay in the States, Xavier also has to navigate the reality of American work visas. After rescuing his Chinese-American cab driver from an incident of road rage, he manages to convince a female relative of the driver to go through a marriage of pretense. They play-act newlyweds quite well and though other movies have explored the issues that arise from indefatigable immigration officials, none has been portrayed as cleverly and with characters this endearing.
As if Xavier wasn't pulled in enough directions, an old girlfriend arrives in New York who further splits his attentions. Her name is Martine (Audrey Tautou, who charmed the world as Amelie) and justifies Xavier's ensuing chaos. Her visit without her kids goes well enough that she returns with the two of her own and the world revolves a little more smoothly as she and Xavier rekindle what seems predetermined to be perfect.
Anyone who's seen earlier Klapisch films like L’Auberge Espagnole knows that the director is adept at straining credibility while never stretching it beyond its breaking point. He's a great director of actors as well, keeping a menagerie of talent well-served. Chinese Puzzle is all of these things and more – an honest celebration of how life throws curves and the agility with which most people handle them.