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Chinese Puzzle

When we first met Xavier Rousseau (Romain Duris) 12 years ago in L’Auberge Espagnole (you may have caught it as The Spanish Apartment) he was a graduate student in an overcrowded Barcelona apartment. His roommates were other participants in a cross-European cultural fertilization program, and watching the expansion of Xavier’s worldview made for an engaging comedy as well as an international hit.

In the 2005 sequel Russian Dolls, Xavier was 30 and dealing with the difficulties of getting your dreams out of the realities life throws in your way. Now writer-director Cédric Klapisch has brought him back for a third go round as he approaches the age of 40. I won’t use the word “trilogy,” not least because there’s no reason why we can’t keep visiting with Xavier into the future; Francois Truffaut’s six films about Antoine Doinel, to which Klapisch’s series is regularly compared, probably only ended because Truffaut died.

You’ll get a bit more out of Chinese Puzzle if you’ve seen the previous films, but it’s not necessary. Xavier has published two novels and is working on his third. His relationship with Wendy (Kelly Reilly) ends and she takes their two children to Manhattan. Unwilling to be cut out of his kids’ lives Xavier follows and finds himself in a melting pot every bit as variegated as that Barcelona apartment.

Xavier’s novel in progress is about complexity of life and his struggles to get from point A directly to point B, so Manhattan is just the right place for him. (A key incident in the film occurs in a cab that has made the mistake of turning onto West 11th, the street that seems to have been designed with the purpose of mocking the city’s otherwise orderly grid.) If life was getting too settled for him in Paris, it now presents all kinds of new challenges, from making himself clearly understood in a language he does not speak “impeccably” to finding an apartment suitable for children, getting a job, acquiring legal status, etc.

But Klapisch is too cheerful a filmmaker to make any of these chores too burdensome. As in all of his films, back to When the Cat’s Away, he delights in exploring urban terrain; Chinese Puzzle may be overlong for his travelogue footage of Manhattan and Brooklyn street scenes, but he has a good eye for city life. Some of the characters Xavier encounters may border on stereotypes, but they’re never mean spirited and anyway aren’t around long enough to grate. It’s lightweight stuff, but graceful and sparkling, certainly an improvement over Russian Dolls.

Watch the trailer for Chinese Puzzle

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