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Chinese Puzzle

Theatrical Review

Cohen Media Group; 117 minutes

Director: Cédric Klapisch

Written by on May 25, 2014 

Lacking the hype of virtually every other film franchise releasing its latest installment this summer, Chinese Puzzle is the latest in Cédric Klapisch’s trilogy of sweet, energetic comedies following the global adventures of novelist Xavier Rousseau. Absent of a formal name (let’s call them the L’Auberge Espagnole saga), they typically arrive just when I personally need them to, like the friend from out of town that sends you a calls you every to catch up.

Similar, but more ambitious than Linklater’s Before trilogy, Klapisch check in with Xavier (Romain Duris) every few years and despite being older and wiser, he continues to embody and be haunted by a the geopolitical paradox of globalization. In the latest version, our lead find himself an immigrant, starting over again in New York City, struggling to keep his family together.

The first film in the series, L’Auberge Espagnole, was a very different kind of French heritage film, rooted in the present tense of 2002. Xavier enrolls in graduate business classes in Spain for a study abroad program and he moves into an apartment which embodies a virtual E.U. Throughout that picture Xavier struggles to maintain his French identity; fearing he’s losing his language he at one point seeks out a CAT Scan.

2005’s Russian Dolls saw the coupling of Wendy (Kelly Reilly), an emotional British TV writer and Xavier, who escaped his business world fate in the previous film and is now moonlighting as a ghostwriter. Growing tremendously since Spain, Wendy announces she’s met someone in New York and decides to move out of his or her Paris apartment. Splitting custody of their two children, Wendy and Xavier make it work across town; that is, until Wendy announces she’s moving to New York to be with John (Peter Hermann) and taking the kids.


Arriving in New York on a tourist visa in Puzzle, Xavier lives in the Brooklyn loft of his Belgian pal Isabelle (Cécile De France) and her Chinese-American partner Ju (Sandrine Holt). After agreeing to provide the sperm for Isabelle, Xavier is repaid with Ju’s old apartment in Chinatown, where he assimilates into the culture, taking under the table jobs at the advice of his $250 storefront divorce lawyer. After saving a Chinese taxi driver’s life he’s repaid with a quick marriage to her niece, which naturally is considered suspect by INS.

Chinese Puzzle is a rare look at the ground-up of the contemporary New York immigrant experience and the remaking of one’s self in a turbulent American economy. To restore order in his life, Xavier goes above and beyond, adapting to foreign circumstances. The charm of these films is Xavier’s awareness as a narrator; he’s likely a proxy for writer-director Klapisch, who studied at NYU. An intimate look at the “two New Yorks” that were a cornerstone of Bill de Blasio’s mayoral campaign, Chinese Puzzle offers a unique on-the-ground experience as Xavier navigates (and quickly learns) the ins and outs of the maze of streets in the Village that don’t adhere to the grid system.

A lively love letter to New York City, the film should be essential viewing in the same breath as the very best New York City pictures, but it falters as it edges towards screwball comedy, similar to L’Auberge Espagnole. Still, it left me craving a forth film as Xavier essentially comes full circle exploring a relationship with ex-girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou), an environmentalist turned executive with two kids of her own. The globalization paradox shifts here to densely populated lower Manhattan, a world (and multiple subway stops) away from Wendy and John’s Central Park West apartment.

Smart, insightful and full of lively, authentic New York City atmosphere that could never be faked on a sound stage in Atlanta, Chinese Puzzle is the real deal. After a lackluster start to season of summer comedies, this exploration of reinvention and adaptation is pure joy.

Chinese Puzzle is currently playing in limited release and will be expanding throughout the summer.


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