The best scene of dialogue in Chinese Puzzle comes near the beginning, and it pretty much sets the tone for the whole film. Main character Xavier (Romain Duris) has an imagined conversation with philosopher Schopenhaur in which he’s told that life is like a piece of embroidery. “You spend the first half of your life on the front side, the pretty side,” explains the kindly German, before turning the embroidery over to reveal a mish-mash of jumbled threads. This represents life’s second half. “It’s not as pretty, but you can see how the threads are woven together,” he says. “You can see how it’s made.” The metaphor might be a bit heavy-handed, but it’s a nice idea. It also sums Chinese Puzzle up perfectly; the film drums in the same points and doesn’t have much in the way of subtlety, but it’s warm and enjoyable nonetheless.
Cédric Klapisch’s easy-to-watch rom-com is actually the third in a trilogy of films that tracks the lives of a group of characters; Xavier, Martine (Audrey Tautou) Isabelle (Cécile De France) and Wendy (Kelly Reilly) are now on the cusp of middle age, and nearly 20 years have passed since they were first brought together as flatmates in Barcelona (back in Klapisch’s 2002 film Pot Luck). Xavier is now a divorced father living in New York, having followed his wife and children to America after Wendy left him for another man (which in turn was sparked by Xavier donating sperm to Isabelle so she could have a child with her partner Ju).
The plot is hectic and all over the place but the script embraces this confusion, again using it as a metaphor for the messy jumble of middle age. And for the most part, Chinese Puzzle gets away with it – our attention is constantly diverted by various amusing sequences and the occasional indie aside reminiscent of the films like (500) Days of Summer. We’re carried along with a stream of chattering characters and comic cameos (Jason Kravits is excellent as Xavier’s sleazy lawyer) that link vaguely from one scene to the next, and because it’s so easy to watch it’s just as easy to forget how jumbled and silly the story is.
In this way Chinese Puzzle once again mirrors the depiction of life that it puts forward: it’s not always memorable and can occasionally be dull, but for the most part it’s fun while it lasts.