The joke used to be that French romantic comedies were neither romantic nor funny. And though there are exceptions to the rule, it took the $150 million box office success of Amélie to silence the most Francophobic of critics.
In 2002, Cédric Klapisch found modest success with L'Auberge Espagnole, a smart, sexy comedy that followed a melting pot of young Europeans thrown together in a small apartment in Barcelona. Fresh and entertaining, the comic and romantic interludes were surprisingly insightful.
For the sequel, Les Poupées Russes (Russian Dolls), Klapisch brings back his charming but self-absorbed narrator, Xavier Rousseau (Romain Duris of The Beat That My Heart Skipped), who ponders the intricacies of love while struggling to become a novelist. While the film captures the springy light-hearted tone of its predecessor, Klapisch has nothing worthwhile to say about romance.
Living as a writer in Paris, Xavier struggles to find personal and artistic contentment as he bounces between jobs and women. Unable to get his novel published and suffering from writer's block, he takes on assignments ghostwriting autobiographies and scripting shlocky made-for-TV romance movies. And though he's constantly in the presence of beautiful women his ex-girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou), the sapphic Isabelle (Cécile de France), a Senegalese clothing store clerk (Aïssa Maïga), a supermodel (Lucy Gordon) and his old Barcelona flatmate, Wendy (Kelly Reilly) he fears he'll never experience true love.
From Paris to London to St. Petersburg, Klapisch provides a fractured and slapdash fantasia that offers up stylish lesbians, lovers who run through the streets naked and cosmopolitan skies that are ever blue. The film is undeniably lovely to look at, but hard to take seriously. Xavier's romantic travails are so far removed from the real world should he settle down with the beautiful but sensitive writer or party in Moscow with the supermodel? and it doesn't help that none of the film's shallow but gorgeous female characters has anything approaching a real life.
Klapisch spends two hours tossing out as many stylistic tricks, comic interludes and whimsical fantasies as he can come up with. Most of it barely rises to the level of a Friends episode, but occasionally the director creates sublime moments of humor and poetry: the hypnotic sway of a woman's walk through St. Petersburg, the thudding bass of a disco as it falls in sync with Xavier's heartbeat, a job interview that breaks into a kaleidoscope of flute-playing suck-ups. These moments almost fool you into believing that Klapisch's meditations on arrested development and intimacy are worth your serious consideration.
The cast is beguiling; Duris keeps his selfish and inconsiderate character believable and engaging while his co-stars bring a feisty sense of humor and sensitivity to their canoodling. Reilly is terrific as the insecure but determined love interest, and Cécile de France as his lesbian pal Isabelle makes the film's most trite vignette a dinner where she poses as Xavier's fiancee pop with energy and wit.
It's about 20 minutes too long, but Klapisch's adoration of his characters, travelogue locales and unwavering eagerness to please will inevitably win over many arthouse film fans even as the ludicrous storyline insults their intelligence.
In French with English subtitles. Showing at the Michigan Theater (603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor; 734-668-8463).
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].