This is of course the sequel to L’Auberge Espagnole that I wrote about last year by the same director and writer Cédric Klapisch and starring many of the same performers. The previous film had a very large cast of characters but had a very simple structure about a household full of exchange students from all over Europe. This one however sprawls just about everywhere across time and space as it follows the main character Xavier’s life without seemingly much tying the narratives together but it still has some charm and the same total commitment to his citizen of the world ethos.
A few years after the events of the first film, Xavier is making a living writing scripts for soap operas and ghost writing memoirs for celebrities. He remains separated from Martine though they are still friends and she now has a child from another in a long string of different boyfriends. In between having a fling with a girl from Senegal and temporarily moving in with his lesbian friend Isabelle, he reconnects with Wendy who is now also a television writer in London. After working together with her and seeing that she is involved in a bad relationship with another man, Xavier seems to fall in love with her and they become lovers. Yet the same time, after being hired to ghostwrite a book for a celebrity model Celia, he also gets involved her. Meanwhile, Wendy’s brother is getting married to a Russian ballet dancer and the whole gang of friends from Barcelona is invited to reunite at the wedding in Saint Petersburg.
There’s a lot going on in this film, too much in fact, made more confusing by how the film wants to tell the story in a non-linear manner. The whole structure feels off as Xavier starts by recounting that this about the household of friends reuniting in Saint Petersburg, yet that only happens at the very end and whole film is really only shows Xavier muddling about in life until the Russia trip happens. Thematically it feels weak as well as it seems to be about Xavier being indecisive about which girl he really wants. The title refers to his observation that his succession of relationships is akin to opening Matryoshka dolls, each leading to another, in search of the one girl he will spend his life with. Yet the film’s commitment to this theme is weak as it doesn’t appear that it is possible to arrive at the end. The director himself seems to subscribe to the belief that this kind of constant change, with its shifting passions and new lessons to be learnt at every stage in life is the stuff of life itself. But then why not thematically orient the whole film in this direction?
The film is on firmer ground in its unwavering assertion of a cosmopolitan vision of society. Sure, Xavier is sadly informed that he is a victim of globalization when he loses his script writing job due to the television show he works on becoming a collaboration with a British production company. But as he is well educated and fluent in English, he easily convinces his bosses that he should be allowed to work together on the project with the British. Meanwhile Wendy’s brother goes to the extent of learning Russian to woo the love of his life while Martine goes off to a international conference of environmental activists in Brazil. Xavier may be a bit of jerk when it comes to treating women right, as is rightly rebuked by Isabelle’s lesbian friends in one very satisfying scene, but he sure isn’t a racist as he beds and then cheats on women of all ethnicities and nationalities equally.
Still all this is part of the background and Klapisch seems unable to come up with a plot that properly integrates this vision in a positive manner. If anything, his story of characters who are constantly moving from place to place and from lover to lover without ever settling down to a state of long term contentment seems to only give ammunition to critics who accuse these rootless transients of not being proper citizens of any given country. Judging by its title, Chinese Puzzle, he’s still doing it in the next and final part of the trilogy. I probably will get around to watching it one day as this film is quite pleasant, but I’m in no rush.