In Ida and Chinese Puzzle, two films by European directors introduce their protagonists to strange new worlds, with very different results.
Screened earlier this year at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and now opening commercially, Pawel Pawlikowski’s lustrously austere Ida is a reminder that black-and-white cinematography can be more stunning than full color. At only 80 minutes, it’s also a testament to the power of cinematic brevity.
The luminous, quiet young woman known as Sister Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is first seen with her fellow novitiates, gingerly carrying a lifesized statue of Jesus through the snow to his place of honor on the convent’s grounds. It’s 1960s Poland. Anna hasn’t taken her vows yet, and before she does her mother superior insists that she go to meet her aunt, Wanda. This surprises Anna; she was raised as an orphan by the nuns and knew of no living relatives.
So Anna goes to the city and knocks on her aunt’s ornate Art Deco door. Wanda (Agata Kulesza), a still-lovely woman hardened by age and experience, looks her niece up and down curiously while a man friend finishes dressing in her bedroom. She’s no streetwalker, Wanda, but a former, famous judge, and not one to edit her thoughts.
Why didn’t you take me in as a child? asks Ida. “I didn’t want to,” Wanda says. “You wouldn’t’ve been happy with me.” She has yet more blunt truths to share. Anna’s real name is Ida Lebenstein: “So, you are a Jewish nun.”
What follows is a humorous yet haunted road trip as this embittered former prosecutor and the wide-eyed novice take a road trip together. Wanda smokes constantly and drinks behind the wheel; their car has to be dragged out of a ditch by horses at one point. The film’s deadpan humor has a trace of Jim Jarmusch or Aki Kaurismaki, but neither of those filmmakers tend to go to the heartbreaking destination Ida and Wanda are headed: the countryside, to find out, from the good Christian farmers there, what happened to the Jews who populated the place (including Ida’s parents) until World War II.
The movie’s emotional climax is followed by an extended coda, as we follow Ida for a few days in the city, where she decides if she wants to return to being Sister Anna. She lets her hair down, literally, and learns to appreciate jazz — and the band’s handsome young saxophonist. The smitten fellow says, “You’ve no idea of the effect you have, do you?”
That can’t be said about the movie. In his choice of restraint, fablelike simplicity, pared-down dialogue, comedy and sorrow, director Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love) seems to know exactly the effect he wants. He succeeds in making a deeply original, memorable film.
Chinese Puzzle, on the other hand, is watchable but forgettable. In writer/drector Cédric Klapisch’s follow-up to L’Auberge Espagnole (2002) and Russian Dolls (2005), the best parts come during the credits: we glimpse the lead actors in all three movies, seeing how they change over a decade. It’s like watching François Truffaut’s alter ego, Jean-Pierre Léaud, aging in the four features they made starting with The 400 Blows, or seeing Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy lose their kittenish youth and develop crows’ feet in Richard Linklater’s three Before films.
There, though, comparisons end. Romain Duris returns again as the films’ focal point, Xavier, a French novelist who has a hard time writing novels, maybe because he’s always busy obsessing about the women in his life. Audrey Tautou is Martine, the Frenchwoman who was his girlfriend in L’Auberge. Cécile De France is Isabelle, also French, a lesbian and Xavier’s best pal. And Kelly Reilly is Wendy, the Brit who became Xavier’s girlfriend, then wife, in Dolls.
Puzzle opens 10 years later, in New York, where Xavier has moved to be close to his two kids after Wendy divorces him, hooks up with a Yank and shacks up in his Central Park apartment. Isabelle is also a New Yorker now, dwelling in spacious Brooklyn digs that she lets Xavier share, along with her Chinese American girlfriend Ju (Sandrine Holt). Oh, and since the gay couple long to have a child of their own, Xavier lends some sperm, and Isabelle’s belly grows. That leaves Martine — who flies over occasionally with her own two kids just long enough to have business meetings and some old-time sex with Xavier that leaves them both confused.
Confusion is Xavier’s theme this time around as he tries to complete his latest book and comprehend the complications of his life as he pushes 40. It’s also an excuse for Klapisch to continue taking genial but arbitrary digressions down multiple plot lines (several with dead ends), just as he did in the previous two movies.
The viewpoint here is very narrow. The films don’t really allow Xavier to have any men friends. Other guys might draw attention away from his scruffy alpha male, who is defined, and defines himself, entirely by the women in his life. De France’s Isabelle comes closest to the Best Pal role, but her sexually voracious, party-all-night character is a male fantasy of a lesbian, only underscoring the unbalanced gender politics of the trilogy.
The movie’s strung-together episodes include cheesy snippets of fantasy that aren’t really funny, some broad American stereotypes, and reasons for Duris to go sprinting down city sidewalks. (This time, in contrast to a memorable full-frontal dash in Dolls, he keeps his clothes on; 40 has a way of doing that to you.)
It’s all pleasant enough to watch. It just doesn’t add up to much. Only one extended scene really comes to comical life: Xavier has to bust an extreme sweat to keep Ju from catching Isabelle in flagrante delicto with another woman — and every character in the movie shows up at the same time at the apartment where it’s happening. Who would have predicted that the movie’s best moment would be a classic jolt of French farce, updated for the 21st century.
Ida. With Agata Kuleszka, Agata Trzebuchowska. Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski. In Polish with subtitles. Rated PG-13. 80 minutes. At UA Tara and Lefont Sandy Springs.
Chinese Puzzle. With Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Cécile De France, Kelly Reilly. Written and directed by Cédric Klapisch. In English, French and other languages, with subtitles. Rated R. 117 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.