Upon his arrival in New York Harbor, toward the end of the 19th century, Elia Kazan’s uncle must have felt the overwhelming emotion his nephew captured so vividly, decades later, in the climax of his 1963 classic, America America. In it, a young, recent Greek immigrant stands wide-eyed in the face of the Statue of Liberty—a promise of a better future in the land of opportunity, one in which immigrants from all cultures, religions and walks of life can reinvent themselves. After working one’s way through Ellis Island’s great hall, and its medical inspections, interrogations and paperwork, the gates to America would finally open. But these times are long gone.
Nowadays, to travel from Europe to America, one simply has to get on a plane, fight his way through the New York real-estate jungle, scrape for a cash-in-hand job on a tourist visa, fabricate a fictitious marriage with a Chinese-American and convince persistent US authorities of the marriage’s authenticity… all for a green card. At least those are some of the obstacles Xavier (Romain Duris) has to overcome in Cédric Klapisch’s latest film Chinese Puzzle. After the European student digs in Barcelona and the yuppie reunion in Saint Petersburg, Klapisch brings his beloved characters from L’Auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls back together for the final film in a trilogy best known for its colorful relationships, witty dialogues and charming characters. While Richard Linklater’s comparable Before trilogy similarly maps a long-term relationship between an unlikely couple, Klapisch brings more comedy and sentiment.
When we first met Xavier he was a young, shy and inexperienced student, ready to try his luck at life and love in Barcelona. We then saw him grow into something of a womanizer—a hedonist with the very French hobby of philosophy, Xavier channeled his existential angst through novel-writing. Twelve years after our first encounter we now find him as a father of two, freshly separated from British Wendy (Kelly Reilly), his former Barcelona roommate, after the dissolution of her ten-year marriage. But has he changed? As Wendy moves to New York with the kids, Xavier meets a mid-life crisis, not to mention writer’s block, and decides once again to dive into a new adventure in a new city. Alongside his “lesbian buddy” Isabelle (Cécile de France) and his iffy schooldays ex, Martine (Audrey Tautou), he lives the dream of a second youth on saggy mattresses and the streets of New York. An adult that doesn’t want to reach adulthood – still, after all these years, questioning his purpose in the world – Xavier is a shining incarnation of the Peter Pan generation, albeit one faced with the hard, equally rewarding, responsibilities of parenting.
While staying true to classical storytelling and character development, Klapisch manages to seamlessly weave in an astonishing number of ideas, interludes and filmic parentheses, all shaping the playful elegance of the film’s language. The trilogy’s previous two films already featured innovative storytelling and visual approaches through non-linear narrative and experiments with formats and split-screen. But Chinese Puzzle is definitely the most inventive and daring of the three. Its tangled yet fluid narrative is embellished by blasting cinematic ideas, such as a Gondry-esque paper cut-out animation, a sexual fantasy sequence featuring nude models stepping out of a Playboy magazine as well as curious and irreverent encounters with the long-deceased Hegel and Schopenhauer. Furthermore Klapisch appropriates, to entertaining effect, contemporary visual digital aesthetics such as the webcam video of a Skype call, computer screens and a Google Street View journey through the streets of New York.
L’Auberge Espagnole took Barcelona as the exciting symbol of the young European melting pot of the early 2000s. Within the frame of the Erasmus European student exchange program it portrayed the perfect playground for an emerging generation that didn’t feel restricted by frontiers, eager to embark on journeys of self-discovery. But twelve years later this lightness has faded in a crisis-ridden Europe. So Klapisch takes his adventurous characters to New York, a city they perceive as self-affirming and free. New York’s colorful and multicultural vibe fits perfectly within the cinematic framework created by the last two films. And Klapisch repeatedly reminds us of the city’s diversity and “joie de vivre.”
Together with its two predecessors, Chinese Puzzle depicts the unfolding of a newly cosmopolitan, transcultural generation. One that grew up in a globalized world, and for whom switching between cultures has become nothing less than expected. One doesn’t leave his country in the hope of a better life, but more from curiosity and spirit of adventure. Xavier finds himself floating between cultures. While working with Hispanics and living in Chinatown he never quite settles down in a cultural community of his own. New York is just a stop on a journey. And who knows, maybe next time we see Xavier, he will already have moved on to the next trendy, self-declared European youth capital Berlin, or Asia’s global harbor Hong Kong.