Russian Dolls is Cedric Klapisch’s sequel to his joyful 2002 European melting pot romp, L’Auberge Espagnol. Five years later, Xavier (Romain Duris, The Beat That My Heart Skipped) is a freelance writer forced to take on odd jobs like ghostwriting the autobiography of a 24-year old supermodel while hoping to complete a more serious novel. Something else he takes to make ends meet is penning the sequel to a trashy romantic television melodrama, but Xavier starts suffering from writer’s block when he decides he doesn’t know anything about truly being in love. He dallies with a horde of women from his ex-girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou, Amelie) to a Senegalese clothing store clerk (Aissa Maiga, Cache) to the aforementioned model (Lucy Gordon, The Four Feathers), all the while confused by what he wants from them. When the rights to his melodrama are bought up by the British, Xavier goes to Wendy (Kelly Reilly, Mrs. Henderson Presents), his old Barcelona flatmate, to help him co-write it in English. He observes her relationship with an abusive boyfriend and the passionate romance between her brother William (Kevin Bishop) and a Russian ballerina (Evguenya Obraztsova), which begins to clarify things for him.
Like Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset, Russian Dolls is a more mature take on the lives of now older but not necessarily much wiser characters. That doesn’t make Russian Dolls any less fluffy than the light-hearted L’Auberge Espagnol. One of the comic highlights is Xavier convincing his Belgian lesbian roommate, Isabelle (Cecile De France), to pretend to be his fictional fiance for the sake of his 98-year old grandfather (Pierre Gerald). It’s utter silliness, but also hilarious due to the execution by the actors.
Russian Dolls does for Paris, London, and St. Petersburg what L’Auberge Espagnol did for Barcelona. Watching the movie is like taking a mini-vacation to these metropolises, and Klapisch’s camera revels in all their splendor. It’s always sunny and it never rains in Klapisch’s world. For all the problems the characters face, the movie is a whimsical fantasia of what we wish our lives could be like – the constant pairing up with beautiful people, traveling to world-renown cities, partying with hip lesbians, chasing each other through the streets of Paris in the nude. Okay, this might not be everyone’s fantasia, but it is certainly captures urban upper middle class bohemian vibe.
This would all be so smug if it weren’t for Klapisch’s perceptive, humanizing touch and the actors, who all look like they’re having a blast playing and playing with their characters. Tautou gives her most believable down-to-earth performance ever, and Kelly Reilly is reminiscent of a young Diane Keaton, not in looks, but in her delivery – a combination of self-conscious insecurity and precarious determination. Duris holds everything together by making his selfish and self-absorbed character engaging because of his familiar faults, not in spite of them.
The cast is certainly not iconic like Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell from His Girl Friday, but they exude that same playful appeal. It’s an infectiously giddy movie. The film is slapdash with Klapisch constantly throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks. Some of it might be goofily fitting for any television sit-com, but some is as sublime as anything in Ernst Lubitsch. A fumbling request for a date with a stranger, a groom who gets weary from keeping a smile on his face, parents unable to subdue old habits and get into a fight on their son’s wedding day are all terribly familiar situations that Klapisch and his actors execute with freshness and an affecting human touch. Russian Dolls is not an intellectually cohesive movie, but it’s so much exuberant fun, it doesn’t matter.