Chinese Puzzle – Film Review

Chinese Puzzle

I’m not always completely up to speed with the films I watch as I try to not see all films having watched every trailer and speculative news article. Because of this I went to see Chinese Puzzle at last years London Film Festival knowing only that it starred Audrey Tautou and Romain Duris, and that I had enjoyed their work in the past both together and apart.

The film started by showing images of the cast when they were younger and slowly it dawned on me; they were all taken from the film I had seen Tautou and Duris in before. Without realising it I was watching a sequel to 2002’s French/Spanish film Pot Luck or The Spanish Apartment. The original film had shown an international group living together in Spain and Chinese Puzzle picks up the trail in New York over a decade later. I was a little confused at first as to how this had slipped me by but settled down to enjoy the film smug in the knowledge that I had at least seen the film that came first.

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Naturally I was wrong about this too. Researching the film later on I discovered that Chinese Puzzle was not really a direct sequel to The Spanish Apartment but actually the third film in a trilogy with Russian Dolls sitting in the middle. I still have yet to see Russian Dolls but at least it explained why I couldn’t quite remember everything the characters were referring to having happened in the past.

With this addled mind of mine and my failure to navigate a simply trilogy correctly perhaps I not the best person to review the film for you. Perhaps you deserve someone who has the wherewithal to watch three films in the order intended. Or perhaps you are like me and haven’t seen both, or either, of The Spanish Apartment or Russian Dolls and need to know whether you can still enjoy this English/French/Spanish/Chinese/Yiddish comedy drama. I sincerely hope the latter is true.

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All confusion aside I did enjoy Chinese Puzzle. Tautou and Duris are infinitely watchable, as are their returning co-stars Cécile De France (Belgian funnily enough) and Kelly Reilly. The film has a strong streak of drama running through while serving up a strong dollop of comedy to boot. Xavier (Duris) and Wendy (Reilly) are now divorced and she has taken their children to live with her new partner in New York. Not wanting to be away from his family Xavier follows them there and a culture clash comedy ensues as he moves not just to New York but to Chinatown. Meanwhile Isabelle (De France) is also in the Big Apple with her girlfriend Ju (Sandrine Holt) and struggling to stay faithful and Martine (Tautou) comes to visit and causes Xavier to think back on their old romance.

Chinese Puzzle has a lot of threads to follow and relies a little on you being able to grasp what is going on without it being told to you explicitly. I certainly benefited from having seen The Spanish Apartment and probably could do with seeing Russian Dolls to fill in the blanks. If you can cope with this minor inconvenience then what you are left with is a sweet and enjoyable comedy that isn’t afraid to move from emotional drama to comedic farce.

Good fun, if a little confusing for someone who doesn’t even realise they’re watching a sequel. If writer/director Cédric Klapisch continued with this pleasant international comedy franchise I certainly would not complain.

Chinese Puzzle is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.

Beautiful Lies – Audrey Tautou Retrospective #5

Beautiful Lies

Beautiful Lies was the first Audrey Tautou film I saw in a cinema. Up until then I had only watched a variety of her features in my university’s lecture theatre and the series of bedrooms I have inhabited since that time. I can’t say whether or not the cinema enhanced my overall experience/opinion of this film or not as when I re-watched it for the purpose of this review I realized that the intimacy of the characters and plot (much like most of Tautou’s body of work) is just as striking in the comfort of my armchair as it is watching it on the big screen.

Whilst you would be correct in the assumption that Audrey Tautou plays the girl in and out of love in this dram-rom-com, she once again makes a departure from the stereotypical female lead, playing successful hairstylist/businesswoman, Émilie, a woman who is quite frankly unlikable for a good chunk of the film (in actions only; gosh, I’d never not like Audrey Tautou). Émilie is the kind of shirty woman who can bring her staff and customers to sobs in a heartbeat. She thinks she knows best and has no qualms about practicing this, which brings about many of the film’s more comedic and dramatic moments.

Jean (Sami Bouajila) is the handyman putting the final touches on Émilie’s salon. After developing a strong crush on Émilie he writes her an anonymous love letter which she, directly in front of him, shrugs off, crumples and deposits in the bin. Elsewhere, Émilie’s mother (Nathalie Baye) is falling ever deeper into a crazy depression after her husband left her for a young woman. The inspired romance of Jean’s letter strikes Émilie and she forwards it to her mother, subsequently struggling to keep up the ruse of an anonymous romance with inferior soliloquies. Numerous he-loves-her, she-loves-anonymous, he’s-with-her-but-now-she-loves-him twists and turns later and we’ve got a film packed with enough awkward romance and drama to remake Friends, but funnier, and French.

Writer/director, Pierre Salvadori and co-writer, Benoît Graffin once again (amongst others, they collaborated on Priceless, their first Tautou film) expertly craft a series of misunderstandings, romantic smackdowns and childish bickering without ever crossing the line into the melodramatic, making our investment into each and every romantic thread worth the meandering it takes to get to the pay-off. With colourful cinematography that is as lively as its clever script there is rarely a moment of down-time, and the human performances put in from all are exceptional. Like many French dramatic romantic comedies, this is not just sniffles and ice cream; there is so much more character and depth to every aspect of the world these people live in. Without intentionally being hyperbolic, where funny, dramatic romance is involved, it really doesn’t get much better than Beautiful Lies.

Pot Luck – Audrey Tautou Retrospective #4

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L’Auberge espagnole, The Spanish Apartment, Pot Luck. Ms Tautou has a small part to play in this film but she is just one of many zesty flavours brought to the table in this buffet of youthful self-discovery and hopeful escapism.

Multi-lingual and multi-national, Pot Luck follows Xavier (Romain Duris) as he moves to Barcelona to study in the ERASMUS programme. Upon arrival he crosses paths with students and citizens from across the globe as they explore and share friendship, love and the cleaning rota.

Styled very bizarrely to begin with, Pot Luck buzzes around, flipping forwards and backwards in time, distracting us with add-ons to the screen, speeding up first person long-takes and narrating very morosely. It takes a while to get into before you realize that director Cédric Klapisch’s cinéma vérité-ish opening is simply getting us to realize how irritating Xavier’s restricted, pre-determined life is before he ups and leaves.

Anybody who has left for college, travelled the globe or simply shares a house with strangers will find something to love in Pot Luck. As a Northerner who lives in a house with a Ukrainian, a Londoner, a Swiss-Algerian, a Polish woman and an Irishman, I can honestly say that the film’s perpetual comedic bickering and cultural exploration feels very true to life, and its endless self-written-to-win debates would give Aaron Sorkin wet dreams.

Populated with not-sexy-not-ugly actors there are enough relationships and life lessons here to fuel a television series. Whilst the film’s over-arching heart and narrative lie in Xavier’s journey, the rich host of characters that pop up and dilemmas that occur are non-stop fun. Whether it’s Xavier’s realization that he’s fallen for a lesbian and a housewife whilst he still has the clingy Audrey Tautou back in France, or the housemates’ deliberation of how to best select a new housemate, the film’s simultaneously micro and grand scale dramas are  easy to watch and envy; it’s not hard to see why a second film was made and a third is on the way.

A film that lives up to its title, Pot Luck is a great mish-mash of different characters and outlooks on life and it encapsulates all that there is to being a hopeful young adult. Fueled by vivid colours, lively music and plenty of comedy and romance, it forces you to reassess your own life. Look at these guys, living the dream. It really makes you wish that you’d change something; that you’d make some spur of the moment decisions; that you’d give yourself a slap, get out of the house and off the compute…

He Loves Me… He Loves Me Not – Audrey Tautou Retrospective #3

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“We all dream of a great love affair. I just dream a little harder.”

As I cover Audrey Tautou’s body of work I am consciously learning as little as I possibly can about each film new to me so as to best surprise myself every time and gosh darn did that choice pay off with He Loves Me… He Loves Me Not. After watching only the trailer I had no idea of the things I would ultimately see and feel during the feature despite the fact that, ultimately, even by European film standards the overall plot is simple enough (woman fancies man who is married, he remains with his wife, she gets a bit clingy and mad). It is when the film’s meaty character and situational comedy/drama kick in that Laetitia Colombani’s feature debut wallops you right in the heart bone.

Audrey Tautou plays Angélique, a young, bouncy woman who has everything coming her way. Tautou’s smile reaches critical levels of cuteness as she skips and dances through winning a prestigious art scholarship, being given the opportunity to house-sit an insanely expensive home and the blossoming of love for the rugged Dr Loïc Le Garrec (Samuel Le Bihan). This is the happiest film ever… until it’s not. After Garrec makes it obvious that he wants to remain with his pregnant wife Angélique turns sour and becomes the definitive Overly Attached Girlfriend.

He Loves Me... He Loves Me Not - Audrey Tautou

Simply put, Angélique does some truly terrible things; things that will have you feeling a mix of excitement and horrified shock. Despite the carnage that Angélique proves she can produce the film’s exploration of her erotomania – calm down folks, there’s no lusty sex scenes – puts us firmly on her side, not that we’re not also on Dr Garrec’s side too, though. Thanks to the opening act’s aesthetic, which aims to be the most colourful and uplifting thing you will ever see, and Tautou’s deft ability to play such an empathetic victim, when the narrative inevitably turns against her we root for her unequivocally.

Whilst Tautou at first appears be playing another standard love interest this is arguably one of the best performances in her portfolio. For the most part she plays her character’s illness very straight which is often the cause of the mixed excitement and shock we feel throughout the film, but as the story develops further and things get a little more unhinged Tautou’s base Girl In Love act becomes something else completely. In fact, Tautou and Le Bihan are so individually captivating in their roles that you barely even notice that their shared screen-time is somewhat very petite.

Not to instate a bit of hyperbole, but He Loves Me… He Loves Me Not is perfect film-making. When excellent direction and cinematography come together with keen acting and a meticulously compassionate script you get this, a 96-minute comedy drama that makes you kick yourself for having not watched it earlier.

The Da Vinci Code – Audrey Tautou Retrospective #2

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The Da Vinci Code was Audrey Tautou’s first Hollywood film, and she couldn’t have picked any better, really… until we actually saw the dratted thing. Ron Howard, Tom Hanks, a faithful adaption of an acclaimed book, upset religious folk worldwide and Tautou herself; on the face of it The Da Vinci Code should have been amazing, but it seems that when you combine all of those great things you get a film that is a mind-numbing snore-fest.

The film follows symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) and cryptographer Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) as they talk their way through Europe and fool a host of goodies/baddies played by the likes of Ian McKellan, Alfred Molina, Jean Reno and a white-faced Paul Bettany who are all trying to uncover (or keep covered up!) the secret of the Holy Grail.

The largest pitfall with a film like The Da Vinci Code is that not only is there not a huge call for the genre (conspiracy-adventure?) but that the people that do want to watch it want something that won’t put them in a boredom coma. 146 minutes of revelation-revealing via talking just isn’t as fun as running and shouting and chasing. I’m not one to generally advocate dumbing down but National Treasure has 78% on Rotten Tomatoes and The Da Vinci Code only has 64%. Imagine that percentage if there’d been a little more action helping its stars and highbrow plot.

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Obviously Hanks and Tautou are solid as always but their chemistry with one and other is destroyed by the film’s emotional emptiness and bland, shadow-filled styling. Not helping the situation is the film’s adherence to taking itself completely seriously. Like, more seriously than The Passion of the Christ. Not only does that suck all of the fun out of the story but it makes the lighter moments dumb and super dramatic moments laughable.

More than anything The Da Vinci Code feels like a missed opportunity. Maybe I’ll give the 174 minute extended cut a whirl just to make sure that it wasn’t a lack of runtime that broke the film. Regardless, simply because from the outlook The Da Vinci Code seemed to have made all of the right choices I shan’t let it besmirch the good names of Hanks, Tautou or Howard in my mind and neither should you. We’ll just have to live with the fact that when a book is adapted as faithfully as everyone always wants it to be it kind of sucks.