Most love lives — certainly the ones worth making movies about — are complicated. But listening to someone who continually marvels at the twists and turns of his own liaisons can get tedious quickly. So it is with Cédric Klapisch’s “Chinese Puzzle,” a reasonably diverting tale of pre-middle-aged floundering that can’t stop pointing out how unexpected everything is.
The third part in what now must be called a series, “Chinese Puzzle” follows an assortment of attractive Europeans who met at school in Barcelona (in “L’Auberge Espagnole,” 2003) and reunited at a wedding in St. Petersburg (“Russian Dolls,” 2006). Viewing these characters’ affairs through the eyes of an easily distracted French writer, Xavier (Romain Duris), the films have rightly been described as “Truffaut Lite,” a reference to the series of films that followed the fictional Antoine Doinel (hero of “The 400 Blows”) from adolescence into his 30s.
But in “Chinese Puzzle,” which deals with fatherhood, divorce and the temptation to reunite with former lovers, it’s clear that a more apt comparison is to the “Before . . .” series by Richard Linklater — a trio of films whose take on those subjects makes Klapisch’s look not merely lite but vaporous. Disposable, even, and — unlike Linklater’s films, which evolved into a showcase for two otherwise underemployed stars — unworthy of actors who do more interesting work in other people’s movies.
This time out, we learn that Xavier has married his British girlfriend, Wendy (Kelly Reilly), and fathered two children. But right around the time he fathers a third, as a sperm donor for his lesbian buddy Isabelle (Cécile De France), Wendy leaves him, moving to New York to live with a wealthy man she met on a business trip.
Unable to stand being apart from his children, Xavier follows. Conveniently, Isabelle and her partner, Ju (Sandrine Holt), are already there, and help him find an apartment in Chinatown. But he’ll need U.S. citizenship to help assert any kind of legal authority over his kids’ lives, a problem the screenplay quickly solves: After he saves a cabbie’s life, Xavier meets one of the driver’s Chinese American relatives (Li Jun Li), who is so grateful that she agrees to participate in a sham marriage.
Subplots radiate outward from here, and Klapisch has little interest in pruning them: Some have promise — in scenes with an immigration agent, Li displays a feisty gameness that makes one wish for more of this charade — but others, such as Xavier’s new job as a bike messenger, offer a scene or two of setup and are promptly forgotten.
At about the halfway point, the film starts pointing toward its real goal, a reunion between Xavier and Martine (Audrey Tautou), the girlfriend he broke up with in “L’Auberge Espagnole.” Counting Michel Gondry’s recent “Mood Indigo,” this is the fourth film pairing Duris with Tautou, and Klapisch behaves as though he can take chemistry between them for granted. Scenes in which Martine and her kids visit Xavier and his progeny are underdeveloped, failing to let us enjoy the inevitable rekindling of their attraction. The script hits on some provocative themes when Xavier worries about embarking on a “warmed-over” affair, but it quickly ditches them and behaves like a garden-variety rom-com.
As in the earlier films, “Chinese Puzzle” offers a soupcon of technical playfulness without really challenging the viewer; it is more conventional than the first two, though its haphazard photography is less pleasing than that of a mainstream Hollywood romance. And although a couple of moments make clever use of the characters’ history, like a bit of farce requiring Martine to pretend she’s Spanish, more often the references to the past feel like self-absorption. Viewers coming to this film without having seen the others would have no problem following the action; whether they’d care about it is another question.
DeFore is a freelance writer.
R. At the Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market. Contains sexual content, nudity and language. In French with subtitles. 117 minutes.