Chinese Puzzle, opening this weekend at the Cedar Lee Theatre, is a frantic, novelistic film about people on the precipice of 40 and the anxiety their age occasions when family life has fallen into disarray.
Xavier (Roman Duris), a writer in Paris who has enjoyed some early literary acclaim, is working on what appears to be a Roman à clef about "how complicated life is." Wendy (Black Box's Kelly Reilly), his wife of 10 years, has fled from Paris to NYC to be with another man and taken their two children with her. On a fatherly impulse, Xavier moves as well, to be closer to them. He temporarily stays with his lesbian "buddy" Isabelle (Cecile de France) who's now carrying a child for whom Xavier labored to achieve an orgasm in a hospital beat-off room to conceive. He's assured that he will "not be a father, in the traditional sense."
Isabelle and her partner Ju (House of Cards' Sandrine Holt) are eternally grateful. Once the child is born, in NYC — the film effortlessly spans 12 months or so — Isabelle embarks on a steamy affair with a prim and lovely Belgian babysitter, the concealment of which becomes the engine of one of the film's tensest scenes. Xavier, meanwhile, navigates the thorny pathways to citizenship with the assistance of a sleazy lawyer, reconnects with a former lover (Audrey Tatou, aging gracefully) and manages the responsibilities of parenthood in the herky-jerky, back-and-forth way of recent divorcees living in big cities.
Though Chinese Puzzle, at times, seems to lose its way via a stream-of-consciousness narrative sensibility, even when the tangents and mini-story lines border on the absurd they are anchored in truth.
The tone and feel is most certainly that of a novel: the ensemble cast, each with his or her particular roster of problems; the multi-city romantic arrangements, the deep introspection (via the lead character's own literary output) about life's complications and struggles; the visualization of Xavier's imagination. At two hours, it's longer than it should be, and it has a few gimmicky moments you may not be wild about, but there's a sincerity here that makes the film an easy one to settle into.