Movie Review: Chinese Puzzle (2013)
“I have a problem with the ending,” the French publisher of French novelist Xavier Rousseau (Romain Duris), now living in New York, tells him at the end of “Chinese Puzzle.” “It’s a horrendously happy ending.”
So it is. The middle is a problem, too.
The French publisher, by the way, knows we all want to be happy in life but we want drama and tragedy in fiction. Maybe. What he should have said is that we want drama and tragedy when we read but we want happy, Hollywood endings when we watch. That feels true but is it true? And if so, why? One assumes readers are more intelligent than watchers. But many of us are both—readers and watchers—so do we want different things depending on the medium? I probably find myself pulling for that happy ending more often in movies, even though, intellectually, I know it would be wrong; even though I know it would make the movie less resonant.
But I wasn’t rooting for the happy ending here. I was with the French publisher. The two of us should’ve grabbed a drink afterwards and bitched about the film.
La vie, c’est compliqué
A Chinese puzzle tends to be a complicated and intriguing thing—how do the pieces fit together?—but “Chinese Puzzle” leaves out the intriguing. It tends toward the superficial and downright silly.
Remember that old joke playing off the Army’s slogan, “See the world, meet interesting people—and kill them”? I feel something similar about writer-director Cédric Klapisch’s Xavier trilogy (L’Auberge Espagnol,” “Russian Dolls,” this). Except it’s “See the world, meet beautiful people, and fuck them.”
A year ago, as the film starts, Xavier was happy and content and living with his British wife Wendy (Kelly Reilly) and their two kids, Lucas and Jade (Amin Djakliou and Clara Abbasi), in Paris. But then they drift apart. Xavier’s best friend, Isabelle (Cécille de France), a lesbian, wants a child with her Chinese-American lover Ju (Sandrine Holt), and asks Xavier to provide the sperm. He does. Wendy doesn’t like it. Or something. And anyway she meets an American during a business trip to New York. Then she moves there with the kids. So he moves there to be near the kids. But now he’s out of his element. It’s like Barcelona again except he’s 40.
In a way the problem with the movie is that it is constructed like a Chinese puzzle: here’s this piece, and this piece, and this piece. Here’s this problem, and this problem, and this problem. They all build out but don’t construct much.
Once he moves to New York, he needs a place to live. Ju helps with that, but then he needs a job on a tourist visa. A fellow divorced dad helps with that (bike messenger), and we see him on that bike. Once. Then it’s forgotten. We also see him bartend. Once. Is that how he’s making a living? Isn’t he selling books in Paris? He’s a semi-successful novelist there, isn’t he? Or does he merely have the “small but loyal following” of a T.S. Garp?
For custody and immigration issues, he needs a lawyer, and gets a schlubby Jewish guy (Jason Kravitz), who suggests marrying an American. Guess what? Because he saves his Chinese cab driver from a pummeling, the driver’s nice-looking niece agrees to help. Mazel tov! But the INS ain’t buying it, and spends more man-hours questioning him and her than the CIA did in tracking bin Laden. Then there’s Isabelle. Yes, the baby is born, and that leads to the babysitter, a pretty young Belgian thing (Flore Bonaventura), which leads to an affair. It’s like Garp again but without the guilt. Is this when I began to lose interest? When I saw more beautiful French lesbians naked on the screen? The French are really stuck on that. So to speak. They don’t resolve it, either. Everyone works to shield Ju from Isabelle’s infidelity even as the severe INS officers arrive in the cramped third-floor walkup above the Chinese laundry to double-check on Xavier’s marriage. Life is so crazy!
The movie had promise, too. Early on, Xavier contemplates the difficulty of life going wrong, and mentions that, for an atheist like himself, this means falling back on the German philosophers. So they show up periodically—like Humphrey Bogart in “Play It Again, Sam.” There’s Schopenhauer on his bed dispensing advice. Later, in America, he imagines Hegel telling him, “All nothingness is the nothing of something,” which both Xavier and I liked. And then? Rien. C’est tout. Bummer. I was hoping to learn something. But like everything else in “Chinese Puzzle,” it starts and stops. It begins and goes nowhere.
C’est la vie
Life is messy—that’s the point of the movie—but this is a pretty neat version of messy. You get to be a trim, handsome Frenchman, your New York is both gritty and safe, and your fallback position is Martine (Audrey Tautou). Who’s near 40 now so apparently no one wants her anymore. C’est la vie.
“C’est la vie” used to mean, “Well, life kinda sucks; get used to it.” Here, la vie, c’est compliqué, mais extraordinaire. C’est hereux.
How happy is the ending? How Hollywood is it? Klapisch actually has Xavier run through the streets of New York to stop the girl from leaving. So they can all stay together and be happy together. And in the end they walk in one of New York’s many parades, and Xavier, with Martine by his side, exchanges greetings with the older Chinese dancer he sees every day in the park, whose own story means nothing; and whose appearance here is just another superficial, meaningless piece of the puzzle.