When last we saw Xavier (Romain Duris) in Russian Dolls, the middle entry in director Cédric Klapisch’s “Spanish Apartment” trilogy, he was a relationship-hopping wannabe novelist writing trash and threatening to run aground on turning 30. As the film ended, however, he embraced Wendy (Kelly Reilly), a fellow writer for whom he had fallen, signaling a real want of settling down. Indeed, as Chinese Puzzle opens, he and Wendy are married with two children, though on the verge of a divorce that will send her fleeing for New York City and him proceeding to the same city to maintain contact with his offspring.
A mere three years separated the trilogy’s first two films, but Klapisch held out another eight before returning to its capper, so as to peer at Xavier crossing the threshold of middle age. Klapisch intensifies the stakes by ascribing kids to each central character, making the potential consequences more palpable, but without losing any of the playful buoyancy on display throughout the earlier films. In fact, Xavier, having legitimately become a working author, is penning a book about the complications of life, and the subject of his fiction blends with the film’s themes to illustrate that, while solving the puzzle of his existence is perhaps an impossibility, managing and even coming to embrace the rigmarole of attempting to assemble it is not.
Like its predecessors, the movie is abundant in filmmaking chicanery, but here the use of split screen, time lapse, and quick cuts delightfully underscore the spirit of its setting, the story galloping at a brisk pace evocative of New York living. A melting pot of personalities, French and Chinese and American, intermingle and the dialogue bounces from one language to the next, often within the same scene, as Chinese Puzzle becomes an effervescent variation on the time-honored story of striking out for the American dream.
Klapisch’s concerns, however, are emotional, not social. True, Xavier enters a fake marriage to acquire a green card, but his make-believe bride’s enthusiastic willingness to help and their heartfelt behavior in close quarters represent the film’s ideals more than the scheme. At the same time, he provides a sperm donation for his old lesbian chum Isabelle (Cécile de France), now living in Brooklyn, a farcical situation that bypasses broadness by honestly depicting the blurred lines between friend and blood. Once Audrey Tautou’s Martine, Xavier’s girlfriend in the trilogy’s first film, L’Abuerge Espagnol, turns up with her two kids in tow for a visit and perhaps an extended stay, everyone combines to create a movingly modern twist on the immigrant family.
Even with so many characters and story threads, Klapisch effortlessly builds to the inevitable third-act collision, the myriad of complications coming to a head simultaneously and comically. That not all of them are resolved feels perfectly on point, depicting leftover pieces of life’s puzzle, as does the freeze frame, typically a hackneyed interference, to close the film and, in turn, the trilogy. “New York is on a mathematical grid,” explains Xavier in a voiceover meant to evince the contrast between that perfect concrete framework and all the chaos contained within. That these people will never overcome nor do away with that tumult is okay, because they’ve determined how to exist amidst it and seize individual moments of clarity for all their worth.