Realistic Sucking Action

Washington City Paper | June 16, 2006
In 1996, Cédric Klapisch was on the short list of French directors who, if there had still been a significant market for subtitled cinema, deserved to be international stars. A decade later, the director of When the Cat’s Away has earned a place on an even tinier roster: directors of recent foreign-language movies that actually made some money in the United States. Too bad that in qualifying for the second list, he lost his place on the first. Klapisch’s L’Auberge Espagnole, a 2002 art-house smash that centered on a Barcelona apartment, had some of his previous work’s freshness and whimsy, but it was also significantly more conventional. Now he’s taken the utterly ordinary step of making a sequel. And like its characters, Russian Dolls is worldly, attractive, and shallow enough for the megaplex.

The film opens with its prime mover, now 30-ish Xavier (Romain Duris), riding a Eurostar train, a symbol of Europe’s new unity that we haven’t seen since last week’s Clean. As he taps away on his laptop—Xavier has graduated from grad student to ghostwriter/soap-opera scriptwriter—he ponders his enduring fascination with women. He thinks of ex-girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou), with whom he parted during the previous movie but is still friendly. More telling is the flashback to another fetching ex, Neus (Irene Montalà), who once quarreled with Xavier and ran from his apartment without collecting her clothes. Neus is a very small part, but she can be seen as the film’s emblem: Running stark naked through Paris’ picturesque streets, she exemplifies a dedication to sexy young people and pretty old places that verges on the oppressive.

Xavier can’t settle on just one woman, and who can blame him? All of the ones he meets are stunning—and quite willing. (If there’s a lovely in France, Britain, or Russia with a boyfriend she wouldn’t drop in an instant, Xavier never encounters her.) As the story hops across Europe’s time zones and back and forth across the past few years, Xavier maintains platonic relationships with Martine (now a single mom) and lesbian pal Isabelle (Cécile de France)—both now in Paris—and initiates romances with Franco-African sales clerk Kassia (Aïssa Maïga) and London-based writing partner Wendy (Kate Reilly). (All but Kassia are L’Auberge Espagnole holdovers.)

It’s Wendy’s brother William (Kevin Bishop) who falls for a Russian doll, ballerina Natacha (Yevgenia Obraztsova), and their marriage brings the original film’s flatmates to St. Petersburg for a reunion. By then, Xavier has botched his relationship with Wendy by taking up with a ghostwriting client, pampered 24-year-old supermodel Célia (Lucy Gordon), who’s preparing her autobiography. In a pivotal sequence, Xavier contemplates the beauty of the mute, slo-mo’d Célia, explaining in voice-over that the model is the human equivalent of St. Petersburg’s famed “street of perfect proportions.” Xavier is a connoisseur of the female form, of course, but this is nutty: Célia is no more striking than Martine, Neus, Isabelle, Kassia, Wendy, or Natacha—not to mention the few L’Auberge Espagnole lookers who appear fleetingly or not at all in the sequel.

Xavier seems more feral in Russian Dolls than in its predecessor, but that might just be the lingering effect of Duris’ audacious performance in last year’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped. Bishop is given a bit more range this time around, although his character doesn’t really add up, and the other male characters are single-faceted at best. The women aren’t offered much more nuance, even if Tautou does get to show a variety of emotions. Inspired in part by François Truffaut’s The Man Who Loved Women, the movie is entirely Duris’ show. When the logistically impossible concluding scene shows that he’s reconciled with one of his exes, it hardly matters which one.

“Don’t be afraid of clichés,” Xavier is advised by a soap-opera producer, and Klapisch’s script takes that advice. If he and his characters are a little self-conscious about the commonplaces of romantic comedy, they employ them nonetheless. (When one character proposes a fictional romantic speech to a co-writer, you know the other will eventually deliver it for real.) Klapisch has recently said that he remains “a director who directs after the fact,” yet the improvisational, daily-life feel of his early work is gone. As in L’Auberge Espagnole, he tries to compensate by playing digital-video tricks that gently scramble the sense of reality—though there’s little of that here. Russian Dolls is a vision of the new Europe in which all the fanciful old assumptions of the Gallic sex comedy still apply.

Washington City Paper

In a city where a great deal of attention is focused on national affairs, Washington City Paper maintains a relentless emphasis on local Washington. City Paper serves as the definitive local guide to cultural and civic life in the District...
More »
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Market Served: Metropolitan Area
  • Address: 1400 I St. NW, Suite 900, Washington, DC 20005
  • Phone: (202) 332-2100