Since it began 12 years ago, the Spanish Apartment trilogy has always banked on wistfulness and naïveté. There is a specific market for these sentiments, disciples that will ardently follow the misadventures of Xavier Rousseau, the Frenchman we initially met in Barcelona while he was studying abroad. Included in this audience are those who would shamelessly flout their “wanderlust,” and those who cannot resist the long con of optimism. For such starry-eyed acolytes, returning to Xavier is an irresistible urge. That pull could be due to the unabashed romanticism, or the magnetism of Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou, or the desire to reclaim a part of youth that has inevitably slipped away. Maybe those qualities are all the same, innocent fantasies that some of us have clung to for hope or security.
Writer and director Cédric Klapisch introduced us to Xavier (Romain Duris) when he was still in college, discovering older women and stringing along his oblivious girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou). At thirty he fell in love with Wendy (Kelly Reilly), a British roommate from his time in the Erasmus Programme. Now he’s pushing 40, a successful novelist with two kids and a failing relationship, more confused than ever — and this is a man who is perpetually confused. But this is only a symptom of a greater malady, one in which Wendy has decided to leave him for an American. She announces that she’s moving to New York, and she’s taking the children with her. Xavier’s protests are as useless as he is powerless. His only recourse is to chase, and to start over as a foreigner.
By virtue of this relocation, and Xavier’s alien status, Chinese Puzzle becomes a quintessential New York story, and a surprisingly honest portrait of the city. He has ventured alone into this behemoth and is somewhat hapless, though he does have the support of his longtime friend Isabelle (Cécile de France), whom he magnanimously donated sperm to at the expense of his own relationship. Within days he encounters every ordeal that vexes and infuriates neophytes and natives alike — subway transfers, apartment hunting, legal issues. Klapisch illuminates these hassles expertly, and he contrasts them with stunning shots of the city, from rooftops to streetscapes to aerial panoramas, reminding us of its magnificence. The director has often used stylized cuts and splits screens to embellish his storytelling, and the effects here are just as impressive.
But Xavier’s life, from the previous films we have seen, is driven by its vibrant story. As a writer, he is compelled to tell it in the most evocative way he can. This means a web of plotlines weaving through the narrative, all intertwined and stoked by passion. The conflicts are forces of nature, recklessly pushing him forward and knocking him back. So while the divorce and custody battle are the binding, the directions are constantly changing, most evidently when Martine flies in for a business meeting. This is where Klapisch shifts to romanticism, and Xavier’s mantra of “It’s complicated” becomes a crutch that the more serious viewers may scoff at.
As the story barrels towards a conclusion, it becomes clear that the director is chiefly concerned with wrapping up the series. At one point, the three women Xavier adores are laughing together, all differences apparently resolved, telling him he needs a wife that is a subservient mashup of their best qualities. The denouement is over the top as well, a madcap race to prevent a total disaster, reminiscent of countless screwball comedies. It’s predictable and derivative, but it also sums up Xavier’s theory of entropy, and then it comes to a resolution.