I have to confess that I saw Casse-tête Chinois (Chinese Puzzle) at the 2013 London Film Festival and knew nothing about it. It was picked on a whim when I had a gap to fill in my schedule and I wasn’t able to put any research into it beforehand. During the post-film Q&A with director Klapisch, I learned that it is in fact the third installment of what is known as the Spanish Apartment trilogy, following L’Auberge Espagnole (2002) and Les Poupées russes (2005).
It stars Romain Duris as Xavier, a novelist whose ex-wife and children have moved to New York. The story concentrates on the complicated web of relationships that surround him as he tries to find an apartment, a job and some kind of life. Included in this web are his ex-wife Wendy (Kelly Reilly, now with her new husband), his ex-girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou) and her children, his best friend Isabelle (Cecile de France) and her partner Ju (Sandrine Holt) who are trying to have children of their own (with Xavier’s help), and many more bit players, all full of character. It’s a great ensemble cast and it’s clear they had a fantastic time filming together.
The film is a joy to watch, with laugh-out-loud moments littered throughout. It’s unusual and quirky. It did not matter one bit that I didn’t know any of the background; the characters are well defined and it works very well as a standalone film. The hilarious business meeting where Martine has to speak Chinese, the sham marriage Spanish Xavier goes through with a Chinese girl to become American, and the crescendo where they all come together in one edge-of-the-seat hilarious finale – the balance is spot on. There are some more serious moments too, not least Isabelle’s affair with her au pair, but these tend to (eventually) be dealt with in a light-hearted manner.
It’s probably not going to make massive waves outside France, which is a shame because there are some lovely romantic comedies being made in that country at the moment and they deserve a little more attention. It may well also be the last installment in the series, with the director alluding to the fact it was difficult to convince some of them – especially Tautou – to come back for the third chapter.
I’d recommend it if you fancy a humorous and whimsical journey through someone else’s very complicated problems and need an emotional lift. It certainly won’t disappoint you.
Casse-tête chinois is released later in 2014 in the UK.