Love on the Run
A Young Man Hits 30 and Tries To Learn How Not To Suck In Fluffy French Romantic Comedy
Xavier is a lovable asshole. The 30-year-old writer can't finish his novel because his paying gigs--ghostwriting memoirs for people who can't form complete sentences on their own, colorful if forgettable lifestyle pieces, a cliché-friendly script for a holiday season made-for-TV romance movie--keep getting in the way. These paying gigs don't actually pay that well or on time, and Xavier (Romain Duris) lives out of his luggage--watching a friend's apartment while he's out of town, crashing in a friend's spare bedroom, or just traveling enough for work not to maintain a fixed address.
Xavier's personal life is equally untethered. Xavier being not only French but Parisian, though, financial crisis, career stasis, and general leaving-your-20s uncertainty is secondary to being in love with love. Xavier loves women--which is precisely his problem. He still loves his ex Martine (Audrey Tautou), even if it's just in a friend way, and willingly baby-sits her son when she asks. He may still love his Spanish ex Neus (Irene Montalà), with whom he survived a passionate affair that fueled heated trysts and even hotter fights. He may even love the beautiful Senegalese shopgirl Kassia (Aïssa Maïga), who works at the store where he buys Martine's birthday present. He loved, even just for the night, the string of women who leave his bed in the morning. And he might actually be falling in love with Wendy (Kelly Reilly), the British younger sister to his friend William (Kevin Bishop). Yes, Xavier loves women--plural.
Russian Dolls is director Cédric Klapisch's playfully sentimental sequel, of sorts, to his playfully sentimental 2002 L'Auberge Espagnole, in which the mid-20s Xavier met most of his Dolls friends while studying in Barcelona. In Spain the group befriended and bed-hopped their way into postcollegiate bliss; in Dolls--which skips from Paris to London to St. Petersburg depending on where a train-traveling Xavier is remembering his proverbial journey--they're mostly employed and hitting the brick wall of adulthood while staring at their carefree youth in the rearview mirror. Aging is probably supposed to add a certain gravity to Xavier and the gang's predicament, but Klapisch is far too whimsical to bother with anything as depressing as reality.
Fortunately, Duris is game enough to be the bumbling clown, both figuratively and literally, in the movie's center ring. Dark haired, dark eyed, and baguette thin, Duris comes from the same strangely handsome Gallic mold that sculpted Jean-Paul Belmondo's shadowy face and full lips--too severe and distinct by the standards of excessively homogenized Hollywood, but an adorable human sex machine in the wonderful world that is French cinema. Duris turned that charisma inward in last year's underseen The Beat That My Heart Skipped, but Klapisch is as in love with Duris' expressive face as Hitchcock was with icy blondes. And Duris is malleable enough to capture both sides to Xavier's still-forming adulthood--the amicable skirt chaser and the bighearted goofball.
Xavier doesn't feel like a player when he's walking back into the woman's clothing store to give Kassia his phone number, telling her he felt she should have his number and that she should call him. He's a total sweetheart with Martine's son, and he and Martine are close enough to share the same bed without looking for unsatisfying, needy sex. But it doesn't stop Xavier from being a prick to both Martine and Kassia when the latter finds the former leaving his flat in the morning. Xavier dotes on his grandfather, but rather than tell him that he's not engaged, he'd rather ask his butch lesbian friend and successful financial analyst Isabelle (the superb Cécile de France) to don a dress and pretend to be his fiancée for an evening dinner. Xavier means well, but he'd rather find an easy way out than deal with, well, dealing.
Nothing new there, and every French cinephile will recognize the ghost of Antoine Doinel floating in the background of Xavier's misadventures. François Truffaut spent four movies following his on-screen alter ego from his precocious teens into his 30s, but Klapisch is no Truffaut. Both have a whirligig storytelling panache, but Klapisch lacks the self-critical eye that gave Doinel's perils a greater urgency. Duris, though, may very well be on his way to becoming his generation's Jean-Pierre Léaud, a leading man unafraid of absolute silliness and looking the fool who remains impossibly endearing regardless. Duris alone can't elevate Russian Dolls above the cinematic hot fudge sundae that it is, but any sane person can tell you that sometimes even chocolate is a necessary food group.