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Ebiri on Chinese Puzzle: A Lighthearted Romantic Jumble That Packs a Surprising Emotional Punch

I don’t know to what degree Cedric Klapisch thinks of himself as a topical filmmaker. His generally lighthearted movies tend to deal with unlikely attractions and living arrangement shenanigans, but he seems to capture something about our social moment no matter what he does. Chinese Puzzle is the third entry in his films about the romantic push-pull among the small group of friends who shared a Barcelona home in L’Auberge Espagnole. (Russian Dolls, set partly in St. Petersburg and Moscow, was the second entry.) The nominal hero of this rom-com mini-franchise, Xavier (Romain Duris), started off as a straight-arrow econ student with little knowledge of life, but has since become a jaded writer and family man. As Chinese Puzzle starts, he’s been married to Wendy (Kelly Reilly) for ten years. Now, however, Kelly is moving out and taking their children with her to New York. Xavier follows them across the pond, and crashes with his close friend Isabelle (Cecile de France) and her new girlfriend Ju (Sandrine Holt) in their Brooklyn apartment.

It’s only a matter of time before the tentacles of modern romance, not to mention the changing nature of family, once again have Xavier firmly within their grasp. He’s already donated sperm to Isabelle and Ju so they can have a baby. Now, in order to score a green card, he agrees to marry a young Chinese-American woman (Li Jun Li). Then, his onetime girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou) comes to visit, and things heat up once again between them. It all gets further complicated from there, especially as an immigration investigator attempts to discover whether Xavier and his new Chinese bride are really in love. 

Got all that? Klapisch isn’t the most elegant of storytellers, but his great strength is that he knows it. The plot of Chinese Puzzle playfully stops, rewinds, fast-forwards; Xavier forgets to tell us important details that then prompt new story digressions. This type of storytelling has an infectious energy, even if at times it feels like the director covering for the fact that he doesn’t quite have three proper acts. Chinese Puzzle isn’t much of a story, but in leaning into and embracing its complications Klapisch is able to isolate little instances — exchanges, glances, fragments from which he can mine profundity. That may feel like a cheat, but it isn’t, because this is a world where the moment conquers all.

I don’t remember if it was Jimmy the Greek or Jean Cocteau who once said, “There’s no such thing as love, there are only proofs of love,” but sometimes it seems as if Klapisch built his entire filmography around that one quote. More so than any other filmmaker, he seems to understand the power of the romantic gesture. In these films, a character never quite knows how he or she feels until the time comes for action, for display. But it goes further than that: A brief appearance by Xavier’s father (played by the great director Benoit Jacquot) looking for a piece of New York sidewalk on which he and the boy’s mother carved their names many years ago, before their divorce, has way more emotional resonance than you might expect. It’s a profession of love from more than four decades ago. That it may still exist out there in the world, even after separation and heartbreak, suggests that such gestures last longer than the feelings that birthed them. Likewise, you may find yourself remembering moments from Chinese Puzzle long after you’ve forgotten what the movie was about.

Photo: Cohen Media Group