When we last saw Xavier (Romain Duris), he was fleeing the security of a government job as fast as his legs would carry him. That was at the end of Cedric Klapisch's "L'Auberge Espagnole," a quirkily romantic bildungs-movie that put a klatch of cute faces on the European Union, qua flat-sharing Erasmus students in Barcelona.
You don't need to have seen "L'Auberge Espagnole" to enjoy "Russian Dolls," but as a mood-setter, it helps. At the start of that film, Xavier was a shy French economics major pining for his girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou) back home, but excited about his new life and friends. By the end, he was a young man who knew what he wanted -- to be a writer. Nearly 30, Xavier is back in Paris, writing pointless articles, bad TV movies and memoirs for illiterate celebrities. His love life is floundering too.
If "L'Auberge Espagnole" was an idealized version (Barcelona, jet-setty bonhomie, etc.) of a universal experience (college, finding oneself, etc.) that almost anyone can relate to, "Russian Dolls" captures the equally recognizable wall you hit later. The early 30s crisis certainly looks more tenable if it's unfolding among several European capitals, but the movie lacks the specificity and focus of the first.
Xavier's sunny outlook has become foggy, in other words. His novel hasn't sold. Martine is still in the picture, beautiful and annoying, but she and Xavier have settled into a comfortable if occasionally inconvenient friendship. When he runs into Wendy (Kelly Reilly) in Paris, the sweet English girl he knew in Spain is too busy shoving her drunken boyfriend into a taxi to talk.
It's not until later, when Wendy's brother William (Kevin Bishop) comes to visit, that we learn that the most immature of the group was the first to grow up. After falling in love with a Russian ballerina named Natacha (Evguenya Obraztsova), William spends a year learning Russian and travels to St. Petersburg to declare his love; that's where the former roommates will reunite for his wedding.
In the meantime, the production company Xavier has been writing for is bought by the BBC, and he is almost replaced with an English-speaking screenwriter until William suggests that Xavier contact Wendy, now a screenwriter herself. As their collaboration brings them closer together, Xavier is hired to write the memoirs of a self-involved fashion model, and finds himself pulled in at least two directions.
As in "L'Auberge Espagnole," Klapisch gets his money's worth from his editing software, using split screens and other effects to conjure the stop, start, rewind feeling of writing. Xavier begins the story at the end, as he returns to London from Paris by train. Then he immediately backtracks a year, through love affairs and piecemeal jobs, to explain how he got there.
"Russian Dolls" doesn't really sell the notion of St. Petersburg as the next new hot city, as "L'Auberge Espagnole" did with Barcelona, because it spends most of its time in London and Paris -- the significance of the title doesn't become clear until the very end.
Charming and antic, "Russian Dolls" doesn't quite cohere in the way of "L'Auberge Espagnole" into a clever snapshot of contemporary Europe. After a brilliant tough guy with a soft side turn in "The Beat That My Heart Skipped," Duris seems to have aged in reverse for his role as well-intentioned but awkward Xavier. Like its hero, the movie tends to dither, unsure of its next move. Xavier's indecision bleeds his ultimate decision of passion, and his shuttling among France, England and Russia by the end of the film feels more random than representative of the times. His bosses at the production company make one clever allusion to the new internationalism; "You're a victim of globalization," they tell him. It's a good idea but the movie doesn't sell it. Xavier and his friends are too self-involved and their worlds too self-contained for that to be entirely true.
MPAA rating: Unrated. Brief nudity, mild sexual content.
An IFC First presentation. Writer-director Cedric Klapisch. Producer Bruno Levy. Director of photography Dominique Colin. Editor Francine Sandberg. Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes. In English and French with English subtitles.
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