Chinese Puzzle (Casse-tête chinois)

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UK Release Date 20th June 2014
Director Cédric Klapisch
Starring Romain Duris
Runtime 117 Minutes
Certificate 15
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 27th April 2014

Life is complicated. Especially when you’re dealing with a  whole raft of first world problems. Cédric Klapisch’s latest would be easy to pick on for its contrivances and its reliance on us caring about people who only have to deal with problems the rest of us would be happy to take on, were it not for the fact that it’s so slick and so much fun. It’s just too damn likeable to complain about….

Chinese Puzzle tells the tale of Frenchman Xavier (Romain Duris), a forty year old who has just been thrown out of his apparently happy marriage and whose Brit ex-wife Wendy (Kelly Reilly) has fallen for an American whilst over in New York on business. Wendy ships out to America with their two young kids, leaving Xavier dealing with writer’s block and a distinct lack of the family he’s known for a decade. He decides to drop everything and relocate his conspicuous Macbook to New York to be near the kids and moves in with his lesbian friend Isabelle (Cecile De France) and her new wife Ju (Sandrine Holt). Arriving at their plush apartment, miles across the city from the kids, Xavier has to deal with the joys of New York transport to schlep across town visiting the family whilst attempting to find an apartment. All the time neglecting to deal with his distinct lack of immigration status. To solve this, his bargain basement lawyer suggests a marriage of convenience whilst in the background Isabelle is agitating for kids but doesn’t want an anonymous donor….

It’s a lunatic amount of plot to jam into a film that necessitates a wonderfully breakneck pace. Klapisch just about manages to keep up the pace for the majority of 117 minute running time, giving you little time to ruminate on the whole experience.

The first thing that hit me about this movie is that it has a PROPER opening title sequence. You know, one that bothers to list all the names over a piece of music, rather than one that kind of slides out names for the first twenty minutes whilst the plot unfolds. I love a proper title sequence and that, combined with the superb music (by Christophe Minck) gets the whole thing off to a wonderful flying start. Although it’s not made explicit at the time, we begin with Xavier rushing off to his ‘wedding’ with his kids and then wind back to work out how we got to here.

As Xavier, Duris is perfect. It’s a role that could easily have come across as annoying and pretentious (he is an author and spends his down time having deep conversations with dead philosophers) but Duris plays it spot on. His Xavier is so affable and scattershot, it’s impossible not to warm to him and his utterly French good looks don’t exactly hinder him.The remainder of the cast kind of swirl around him in a sea of buzzing energy so it’s hard to cling on to any of them. Reilly probably gets the bum deal as her Wendy is necessarily distant, though the film doesn’t shy away from showing Xavier defiantly playing his part in the yelling (his reaction to his son’s school uniform is totally over the top). De France is the most interesting of the remainder, a forty year old lesbian who wants her cake and proceeds to eat it via the naive young nanny the couple take on for their baby. Only Tautou’s character stands out as lacking, it’s with her that the movie experiences it’s only lulls. As old flame Martine, there’s nothing really wrong with Tautou, indeed her magnificent Gallic attitude is great fun, it’s just that we don’t get quite enough from her to really feel it when she and Xavier end up in the sack, though I suspect if you've watched the other two films in Klapisch's trilogy this will be less of an issue.

But that really is a minor issue when you’re having this much fun. Klapisch probably has his eye on something slightly more profound than we get - there are moments of Xavier contemplating the physical and societal verticality of New York - although I’m more inclined to think he’s deliberately winking at the audience as he goes. His script is witty, intelligent and at times laugh out loud funny, although the entire exercise is fraught with convenience and wish fulfilment. Klapisch handles the farce well (no easy task) and the escalating complexity of Xavier's life is a great ride. New York is briefly seen from a French point of view as Xavier’s taxi drives over the Brooklyn bridge, framing a cloud covered city in the distance - a direct contrast to the sunny, sophisticated look shown in Paris, but this is soon ditched and Xavier is flying through the bright, sunny streets of downtown on his bike (having blagged a job as an illegal with a courier firm entirely staffed by illegals). Equally, the biggest challenges are overcome with surprising ease - Xavier’s housing problem for example is resolved when Ju GIVES him a flat in Chinatown inherited from her family, but again, who cares when things are this much fun?

Chinese Puzzle isn’t going to gift you any profound revelations on modern relationships and it’s not a movie you’re going to spend hours debating in the pub. It is a wonderfully funny, joyous experience though. Barring a couple of lags, it fizzes along at a superb pace, the music is absolutely wonderful and the cast are all perfectly likeable. Entertaining characters whizz in and out of focus, all adding to the story and Duris makes one of the most instantly likeable leading men I’ve seen in a long time. I exited the screening with a massive smile on my face, and let’s face it, I’m not known for putting aside my cynicism for a movie. Released at exactly the right time into UK cinemas, this may just be the perfect summer date movie.

Check out the trailer here.

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