chinese-puzzle-002So often we see a Hollywood film begin with a swooping, aerial shot of a glorious Manhattan, with the Empire State Building gracefully standing tall, while the Statue of Liberty looks out knowingly into the distance. However when our protagonist Xavier arrives in New York, in Cédric Klapisch’s Chinese Puzzle, it’s a grey, miserable day, and the peak of the aforementioned skyscraper is hidden by clouds. This lone image sets the precedence for the rest of this title, as an authentic, foreigner’s take on New York, as not always being the romanticised, cinematic setting we’re often led to believe it is.

As the third – and seemingly final – chapter in the life of Xavier, played Romain Duris, following on from the actor’s previous collaborations with the filmmaker, L’Auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls, the author is now going through something of a crisis, when his partner Wendy (Kelly Reilly) leaves for New York with his two, young children. Unable to cope without them, he too moves across the Atlantic – and while suffering from a culture shock of sorts, he finds he starts to settle in a little easier when his dear old friend – and ex-partner – Martine (Audrey Tautou) comes to visit.

Though equipped with that archetypal French surrealism and whimsicality that serves this picture so well, the infusion of America culture is strong, as the move to the Big Apple is unavoidably theatrical, and Klapisch plays on the notion of the American Dream, as a film that ridicules the sentiment, while abiding by it at the same time. The fonder Xavier grows to his environment, and the more he adjust to the culture, the more willing the director seems to Americanise his production, yet in a loving manner, as by the end of proceedings, a certain degree of romanticism and cliché comes into play, in place of the distinct European ingenuity.

As with the preceding two endeavours within this trilogy, Chinese Puzzle is a candid study of character, and while people surrounding Xavier call him “lucky”, we see beneath the facade and the human that lies beneath, and appreciate that in spite of his relative success as an author, he’s just like anybody else. It’s something Woody Allen has mastered, to make the protagonist a creative, somewhat renowned figure, be it a writer or comedian, and strip them of all accolades and almost ignore their vocational triumphs, in place for an intimate exploration, as we see suffer in love just as you and I would.

Duris embodies the role with such ease, slipping back into Xavier effortlessly, and the actor displays his distinct watchability. Despite his charm and good looks, he remains relatable, with an everyday quality to his demeanour that allows for the viewer to connect with the characters he plays. Such endearment is perhaps enhanced by his rather timid frame, almost making him something of an underdog, which the director plays up to, particularly by making Wendy’s new partner incredibly talk and well-built, to reflect not only a difference in stature, but of confidence, too. Once again, this is something that Woody Allen has in his productions, as the filmmaker proves to be a definite influence on this production.

So much happens to our lead, and while usually you’d question the realism of the piece, it’s blended in masterfully with such naturalistic themes, which ground the picture and allow the director the licence to be more expansive, creative and over-the-top. That being said, at times we do lose sight of the main crux of the narrative (the potential romance between Xavier and Martine), and instead are bogged down by varying sub-plots, as we head down few too many tangents, with Klapisch attempting to fit too much in, and tie up too many loose ends.

Meanwhile, Wendy’s character development is not quite so easy to abide by however, as she becomes something of a pantomime villain in how passive and cruel she can be to her ex. She portrays little empathy and perhaps a warmer, more humanised approach would be easier to invest in. That being said, we’ve followed these characters for such a long time, and across three such wonderful productions, that Klapisch has earned the respect of the viewer, and can therefore take us wherever he pleases, and we have no option but to adhere.

Chinese Puzzle feels like a fitting end to a trio of fine movies, progressing accordingly and triumphantly, exploring adulthood with such aptitude. It’s not quite Richard Linklater’s ‘Before’ trilogy, but it’s not far off.