Aside from Richard Linklater’s incomparable Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy headed Before … trilogy and Michael Apted’s Up documentary series, it’s rare to get the opportunity to reacquaint oneself with their most prized movie characters in the constraints of a timespan longer than two or three years. Because so many sequels prefer to act as a direct continuation of the movie they’re following in the footsteps of, few count as being real reunions of sorts — it isn’t until we meet characters again after a long period away that they begin to feel decidedly human.
So maybe that’s why I’m so fond of Cédric Klapisch’s Spanish Apartment trilogy, which, for all intents and purposes, is a Boyhood-esque comedic saga that’s followed the life of a Frenchman from his college years up until he’s turned into a middle-aged divorcee at a crossroads. Beginning with 2002’s near flawless L’Auberge Espagnole, continuing unevenly with 2005’s Russian Dolls, and insightfully concluding with 2013’s Chinese Puzzle, it’s an ode to the flawed poetry of growing older that finds much of its humor in the pains and the confusions of aging.
While L’Auberge Espagnole remains to be the finest of the series — it’s a lovely cinematic exemplification of the excitement that comes with being young — its older, more matured counterpart, Chinese Puzzle, convincingly extends the quasi-franchise with charm more underlined in seriousness. The characters we’ve grown to love over the the decade are suddenly aged, their decisions meaning more than ever. Situations bear more urgency than they have in the past, and, for once, a feeling hovers in the air that much is at stake.
How couldn’t things, anyway, when kids are involved, when jobs are on the line? In Chinese Puzzle, the oftentimes misguided protagonist we’ve gotten to know through the years, Xavier (Romain Duris), is on the verge of losing everything he’s come to understand about his life. His marriage to Wendy (Kelly Reilly), the woman he first met in L’Auberge Espagnole, is divorcing him. He’s just quit his job, which, after years of disaffection, has begun to become monotonous. His friends, all in their forties themselves, are sporadically placed across the globe and are much too fixated on their own lives to take his personal problems much to heart. Anyone in his shoes would perhaps be more adrift, more unsettled. But Xavier wears the self-possession of a man who sees opportunity in the midst of everything going awry, despite his near constant proclaiming that his life is a mess.
The film then follows him as he makes the move from France to New York in an attempt to maintain a close relationship with his kids, and from there do we bask in the glory that is his unpredictable life, which is, like life itself, a magnificent series of complications. Because the tone is more wandering than by the numbers, Chinese Puzzle has a tendency to seem aimless, but since the characters, mostly comprised of familiar faces, are ones we’ve come to veritably adore, seeing them continue to figure out their frenzied lives is an expected joy. The film is said to be the last of the sequence, but Klapisch, a filmmaker with a knack for conjoining the screwball and the heartfelt, leaves us wanting even more.
Chinese Puzzle can be enjoyed as a standalone film, sure, but so likable is the Spanish Apartment trilogy that it’s only natural to suggest going back and watching its predecessors before driving straight in. Duris is a delight, his co-stars even better. Klapisch has satisfied without the iron grip of a conclusive finale, and the ostensible ambiguousness of Chinese Puzzle only heightens its persuasiveness. B