2006Director: Cédric Klapisch
Cast: Romain Duris, Kelly Reilly, Audrey Tautou
’Auberge Espagnole is a winning (and shamelessly optimistic) comedy about an international group of charismatic, intelligent, and happy young people sharing an apartment in Barcelona. How optimistic, you ask? Well, in the finale, our hero, Xavier (Romain Duris) abandons his corporate life to fulfill his childhood ambition of becoming a writer. Still not convinced? As Xavier jogs down a runway, imitating a plane with his arms outstretched, the film closes on a snapshot of his beaming, upturned face. “It all started here,” he whispers, envisioning his ascent to greatness.
But when Russian Dolls picks up, five years later, Xavier admits, “If I look at my life, it’s not impressive.” Now thirty, the man has completed a novel about his year in Spain, but is unable to find a publisher. He spends his days ghostwriting biographies for celebrities and penning the scripts of sappy television movies (“Don’t be afraid of clichés,” advise his bosses). As it turns out, nobody from the previous film lives an ideal life. Isabelle (Cécile de France) has found success in the financial world, but can’t seem to find lasting romance. In Britain, Wendy (Kelly Reilly) is a modestly successful writer but, too insecure to assert herself, finds herself entangled in an abusive relationship. Her brother, the irrepressible William (Kevin Bishop) has found a bride in Russia, but he grows irritable and edgy as the wedding approaches. To quote Joni Mitchell, the dreams have lost some grandeur coming true.
Like Before Sunset, the Richard Linklater sequel to a romance set nine years earlier, Russian Dolls is interesting primarily for the changes wrought in familiar characters. Our heroes seem more self-absorbed, less enthralled with life. On first impression, peripheral characters seem irritating, not interesting. The story flops from under-developed character to half-realized plot strand. Unsurprisingly, Russian Dolls is significantly less enjoyable to watch than its predecessor. When Wendy takes Xavier to her favorite view of London (a scene that would merit rousing monologues and much camaraderie in L’Auberge Espagnole), Xavier limply asks a disinterested question; Wendy ignores him. A stagnant electric guitar dominates the soundtrack, repetitively hitting the same few notes.
As these characters lose their self-confidence and begin to realize their mediocrity, we are constantly compelled to wonder how much fun they’re really having, even when they relax. When Xavier and Wendy begin to write a story together, a montage begins, signifying the maelstrom of unabashed happiness we expect after L’Auberge Espagnole. Then, amidst a free-flowing conversation, Wendy repeats a question—instantly the collaboration seems tepid, unoriginal, and monotonous. However, another line of dialogue is soon repeated and we realize that the movie has only looped back as part of the montage. Perhaps these people aren’t doomed after all?
It is not until the last few moments of Russian Dolls, as Xavier sits pounding out another story on his laptop, that he finally explains the title of the film, comparing the endless parade of women in his life to a series of dolls. Before fleshing out this idea, he arrives at his destination and resignedly decides to finish the story later. He exits his train and sees his new lover. They share an awkward hug and return to their normal lives. After a few credits roll, the film returns as the girl completes a jigsaw puzzle and excitedly tells Xavier. He smiles at her: “¡Super bueno!” In these remarkable endings, the characters are, as Xavier puts it, hostages to everyday life. Rather than seeking profundity at every turn, they are shy, reserved, barely even bothering to earn the film’s title. We don’t know whether these jaded people have matured or given up. Even our observations eventually prove fruitless (is her jigsaw habit a sluggardly habit or mere relaxation?). But, somewhat rebuffed, we hope for the best because these people are a little more ugly, a little more subtle, a little more like us.
Russian Dolls is now available on DVD.