Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Mar 14, 2006 7:26 pm 
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Cédric Klapisch’s 2002 L'Auberge Espagnole was a hit both in France and on the more mainstream Miramaxical side of the US art-house circuit. Its multi-lingual picture of the international student life in Barcelona went down easy, and Russian Dolls/Les poupées russes is the sequel, again featuring Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Cécile de France, Kelly Reilly, et al.

Russian Dolls picks up Xavier (Duris) five years later, now a well-paid writer, and focuses more on Auberge’s most provocative character, Wendy’s volatile brother William (Kevin Bishop). Oscillating between odious and cute, Bishop is an actor whose little riffs are irresistible if sometimes troubling. He seemed a bigot in Barcelona, especially when he suggested that the German roommate, Tobias (Barnaby Metschurat), must inevitably be a Nazi. Russian Dolls gives William a chance to redeem himself by falling in love with a Russian ballet dancer touring England and going the extra mile to woo her, taking a year to learn Russian before he looks her up in St. Petersburg. His romanticism trumps his bigotry. William’s suit is rewarded and there’s a full reunion of the Barcelona students for the Russian wedding finale with various amorous contretemps along the way.

This is Romain Duris’ fifth film with Klapisch. Though it was Duris’edgy performance in Jacques Audiard’s The Beat My Heart Skipped/De battre mon coeur s’est arrêté (released three months before Dolls) that most profoundly altered Duris' reputation into that of a serious actor, still it's clear that Klapisch and Duris have been very good for each other.

While William finds true love, Wendy and Xavier have their own romantic whirlwind. Wendy seems to pick boozy, unreliable men. Xavier’s still friendly with his former girlfriend, Martine – how could Klapisch banish Audrey Tautou? – but he shares Wendy’s unlucky-in-love status. Even Martine seems stuck with a round of multiple partners -- a life now more worrying than fun: "Welcome to the thirties!" she declares. Xavier briefly dates a cute black girl, uses his lesbian ex-roommate Isabelle (Cécile de France) as a stand-in “fiancée” to meet his 98-year-old grandpa (Pierre Gérald), has a quick romance with would-be memoirist twenty-something super-model Celia (Lucy Gordon) and homes in on Wendy (Kelly Reilly).

When the TV series Xavier is writing a sequel to is bought by BBC, it has to be switched to English, and who should turn out to be a great scriptwriter but Wendy. Xavier commutes back and forth between Wendy’s place in London and Celia’s fab flat in Paris overlooking Notre Dame, speeding back and forth on the Eurostar. Later he slips off to Moscow from St. Petersburg in the middle of the preparations for William’s marriage to Natacha (Evguenya Obraztsova). Locations change pretty fast, and never stop being glamorous and colorful.

This is strictly movie land, and it would be a mistake to take any of Russian Dolls too seriously, but Klapisch, who had five years to ponder this sequel but likes to improvise his script from day to day during shooting, knows how to keep the ball rolling. His whirlwind round of warring and flirting and uniting couples is sort of like Gabriele (Last Kiss) Muccini’s operatic style, but with more international travel and fewer midlife crises. Paradoxically, though Muccini’s Italians can seem devastatingly superficial, Klapish’s motley crew seems even simpler. However, while Muccino’s men and women, boys and girls are full of themselves, Xavier has a wry awareness that his glam life as a ghostwriter is essentially shallow.

It’s felicitous that the final post-wedding sequence on a boat is one of the film’s most memorable. Kevin Bishop’s parents fight, the old Barcelona roommates give teary little speeches, the German boy agrees to forget the Nazi slur, and William throws up and cries with joy. Since this was a reunion for the young cast that was itself emotional, the scene has a genuine feeling. Klapisch will consider another sequel five more years hence, and maybe this will turn out like a romantic fictional version of Michael Apted’s “—Up” series. This isn't deep, but it's warm, entertaining filmmaking with style and energy.

(Shown as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema Today at Lincoln Center March 2006, Les poupées russes opened in Paris June 15, 2005. It will be distributed by IFC and is scheduled for limited US release May 2006.)

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