Chinese Puzzle is the third film—after L’auberge Espagnole and Russian Dolls—starring Romain Duris as Xavier Rousseau and directed by Cédric Klapisch. This entry is set mostly in New York City, where Xavier moves to be near his two kids, Mia (Margaux Mansart) and Tom (Pablo Mugnier-Jacob), who are living with his ex-wife Wendy (Kelly Reilly). He rents a room in Chinatown that is owned by Ju (Sandrine Holt), the lesbian lover of Xavier’s best friend Isabelle (Cécile De France). He also helped Isabelle and Ju have a baby by donating his sperm to them.
Xavier’s life in New York is further complicated, not only by his quickie marriage to Nancy (Li Jun Li), which comes under investigation by the INS, but also by the arrival of his former girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou), who wants to rekindle their relationship. There are other distractions as well, as when Isabelle has an affair with a woman named Isabelle (Flore Bonaventura) that Xavier must keep secret.
Chinese Puzzle is a messy, fragmented film about Xavier’s messy, fragmented life, but that is what makes it so appealing. There are interesting messages about love and life, the choices one makes (or is forced into), as well as parenting, happiness, and the meaning of home. The various plotlines are all engaging, as are the large international cast of affable characters.
Duris spoke via Skype with me for the Bay Times about making his film.
Gary M. Kramer: You alternate between comedy and drama, and do both well in Chinese Puzzle. I love the charming scenes of you teasing Mia with the frogs, or you pulling faces taking photos. But I also admire how angry you get when you try talking to your ex-wife about school uniforms. What genre do you prefer to make?
Romain Duris: I love to play in both. It’s good to be in several projects, and as an actor, it’s about creating someone, and thinking about the character and playing with that and the film’s tone. If it’s a comedy or a drama, it’s the same work.
GMK: This is your third film as Xavier Rousseau. How has he changed over the eleven years since you first played him?
RD: Cédric (Klapisch, the director) and I didn’t want Xavier to be now as he was 11 years ago. He was so naïve and immature then—discovering the world inside of him, like a baby. We couldn’t do that with him at 40 because it would have been stupid. So, I played it more seriously, and more mature. I was afraid to be the same man I was 11 years ago. But he would be funny with the situations in this film, which are funnier than in the other films.
GMK: Xavier is a father in Chinese Puzzle. He has tender scenes with his own father and with his kids. What can you say about working with kids?
RD: I think it’s easy because you understand how to get something from them. When you play with children, you have to listen to them a lot because they are surprising. They say the lines when they want to. When you work with kids, it is easier to get the scene.
GMK: I love the line Xavier has about empty moments, like just walking with his kids being the most important and meaningful times in his life. What is a meaningful moment to you?
RD: When I’m alone, I try to paint. Before all this s–t (working as an actor), I used to be a painter and artist. When I have time now, I go to my studio and try to paint. I paint nudes—humoristic, pornographic scenes, like Robert Crumb. It’s a realistic nude, but with humor.
GMK: Xavier searches for happiness (as do all the characters). Where do you find happiness?
RD: My private life with my kids and friends and travel and nature—all the basic stuff. But I find my happiness inside my work and when
you do a scene and have a magical thing happen…I’m happy when I feel that magic.
GMK: Xavier donates sperm to help his lesbian best friend have a baby. Is that something you would do for your closest friend?
RD: (Laughs.) For closest friends—very close friends—maybe.
GMK: Xavier says he has trouble with point B when going from point A to B. How have you imagined your career and life trajectory?
RD: I don’t have any arc or plans. I read scripts and try to do the more honest ones. When I choose a story, or read a good book, something is happening inside me. There are no words, just a sensation, a feeling you want to take the character and go for it. It’s not that I’ve done three comedies so I must do a drama. It’s really a question of falling in love with the part and the character. I try to be very pure.
© 2014 Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” You can follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.