Xavier (Romain Duris) is a middle aged father of two children, who finds life very complicated. When the mother of his kids (Audrey Tautou) emigrates to New York City, Xavier can't imagine life without his family and so follows them there. Here he faces a real Chinese puzzle.
Eleven years after he began it, with 2003’s L’auberge espagnole (aka The Spanish Apartment), and eight years since its middle instalment, 2006’s Russian Dolls, French writer-director Cedric Klapisch at last completes his ‘trilogy of romantic confusion’ with this third instalment, as geographically restless as its predecessors. One hesitates to call this a grand design, in part because it’s hardly an epic story—The Lord of the Rings, this ain’t (though oddly, both are about undertaking long journeys in search of self-knowledge)—and in part because the issues are so resolutely domestic: the pleasures and dissatisfactions of ordinary middle-class lives.
Xavier (Romain Duris) remains the focus. Though at last the writer he yearned to become, he retains, he admits, something of ‘a point-B problem’: an inability to move from one thing to another without wanting to change direction—a fundamental indecisiveness that’s only amplified by the onset of middle-age. His marriage to Wendy (Kelly Reilly) is now over, and a new relationship has taken her, and their two young children, to New York.
Xavier misses his kids—though you suspect he might miss the idea of them more than the reality—so he follows them to Manhattan: first crashing at a friend’s conveniently-vacant downtown apartment, then marrying a Chinese-American woman in order to stay on after his tourist visa expires. There, he begins writing a book, called ‘Chinese Puzzle’, about his life and experiences, inspired in part by his agent’s warning that ‘happiness is a disaster for fiction; drama’s what gets us in.’
Yet Klapisch, as a screenwriter, seems incapable of taking his own advice. He’s an incremental storyteller at heart, more concerned with the vignette—the sight-gag, the set-piece—than with the grand architecture of narrative. Consequently, there are no big revelations here, no major developments at all, in fact; the mood remains strictly agreeable, gentil. Viewers seeking the catharsis of drama—or even the knotty complications of its cousin, the melodrama—would be advised to look elsewhere; this is strictly facile, in the French rather than the English sense of the word.
Which is not to say that these characters lack depth. On the contrary, by now we know them almost as intimately and well as some of our real-life friends—and the complexity of their inter-relationships, their tangled histories both with and without each other, serves to inform and enrich the narrative. This one, in fact, feels even more like an ensemble-piece than the second films, with slightly more screen time given to Xavier’s onetime lover Martine (Audrey Tautou)—whom he left in Paris while he went to Barcelona, and who now reappears in New York with her own children in tow—and his best friend Isabelle (Cecile de France).
What’s most beguiling in all this is the easy chemistry the four leads enjoy with each other; watching, you have the sense of the actors slipping comfortably into the roles they’ve inhabited for so long—a sense reinforced by Klapisch’s decision to build in flashbacks to their younger selves, drawn from the two preceding films. Not quite as ingenious, perhaps, as Steven Soderbergh appropriating clips from another filmmaker’s work in his own (a 1967 Terence Stamp from Ken Loach’s Poor Cow in 1999’s The Limey), but convincing nonetheless.
As such, it’s symptomatic of Klapisch’s deceptively light directorial touch. To my mind he’s never bettered his 1996 comedy When the Cat’s Away, a genuinely delightful movie, but all throughout this trilogy he’s demonstrated a subtle visual inventiveness—particularly regarding the use of colour—and a comic artist’s economy with narrative. (In the aforementioned film, he required just three brief shots—a woman carrying a heavy suitcase toward a station; the same woman submerged in water up to her neck; then the woman walking back from the station, again with her suitcase—to convey everything you needed to know about a dismal seaside holiday.) This time around, he favours a series of rapidly-cut montages (set to Christophe Minck’s bouncy, jazz-inflected score) and fantasy-sequences, with the ghosts of Schopenhauer and Hegel appearing to Xavier at one point, to dispense some aphoristic common-sense.
He also has an undoubted fluency with actors. The sometimes-uneven Duris is good here, turning what might have been a whiny solipsist into a rounded, sympathetic character; and Audrey Tautou is typically compelling, her Martine now shaded with regrets and hesitations. (Though it seems weird, after all this time, that Reilly clearly doesn’t know enough French to talk to her onscreen husband in it. Instead, their arguments are conducted with each character yelling in their own language—which runs contrary to pretty much every cross-cultural relationship I’ve ever seen—or been in.) There’s also a welcome cameo from director Benoît Jacquot (A Single Girl, Farewell, My Queen), who appears as Xavier’s father.
Yet while the locations might change, the worldview on display remains quintessentially French: cosmopolitan, permissive, sensual. Indeed, the essential spirit of the films is remarkably open, alert to the possibility of chance encounters, new friendships, sudden changes-of-plan—all the qualities that typically characterise youth. It was impossible, in the polyglot student apartment of L’auberge espagnole, not to discern an idealised vision of pan-European amity, linked to the foundation of the European Union and all it promised. (The second film extended eastwards—rather like NATO—to take in Russia as well, imposing a veneer of modern, Western European liberalism on the mysterious East… Putin, you sense, would not have been a fan.)
Inevitably the film will suffer from comparisons to another recent, and rather more substantial examination of relationships-plus-time: Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise trilogy. (Some critics have drawn parallels to the Antoine Doinel Cycle, but frankly I’m not enough of a Truffaut fan to care.) It’s less ambitious than those films—unlike them, it’s not aiming for profundity, or to be the testament of a whole life—but no less enjoyable to watch: amusing, engaging. Easily consumed, and quickly forgotten.
One of my tests, for a naturalistic movie, is to imagine the film as a frame, placed carefully so as to enclose and reveal a specific period in the lives of its characters—lives which will then continue (if the film is successful) after the credits have rolled. This one certainly does that… so much so, in fact, that I suspect that Klapisch’s ‘trilogy’ will someday expand to a quartet—and perhaps beyond. As with Jesse and Celine in Linklater’s films, fans will seek out the company of these characters, in the way of catching up with old, long-distant friends. They will want to watch them age, and grow, and wrestle with the same dilemmas they themselves face. It might be, in every sense, the work of a lifetime.