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:: Russian Dolls (Les Poupées Russes)

It’s been three years since Cédric Klapisch’s charismatic collection of characters charmed and delighted us in The Spanish Apartment, a surprise hit of 2002.

Russian Dolls reconnects us with this idiosyncratic group five years on in their lives. Like its prequel, Dolls is seen through the life and times (gripes and whines) of main protagonist, Xavier (Romain Duris). Xavier is definitely a ‘pro – agonist’; dominating the journey with non-stop rumination. Faced with the milestone of turning 30, he engagingly despairs that his three decades are marked by a lack of permanency, direction and most of all, true love.

Early on we discover that Xavier has followed his dream of becoming a writer rather than enduring the stultification of the French bureaucracy. But the need to survive, has necessitated taking on highly paid, soul destroying freelance work, the apotheosis of which is a nauseating, TV equivalent of Mills and Boon. Despite its superficiality, the gig reveals to him how little he knows about love. Mid-process the show becomes an English co-production for which, through some fancy footwork, Wendy (Kelly Reilly) – known to us from the first film – becomes his co-writer. Around the same time, he is engaged to ghostwrite a biography for Célia Shelton (Lucy Gordon), an annoying, worldly, self-possessed 24-year-old model. Célia captures Xavier’s imagination right about the same time that he realizes he’s enamored with Wendy. And so begins a farcical criss-crossing between France and England to finish both jobs (in all senses of the expression). However, Xavier finally finds resolution when the entire group of original Spanish Apartment characters are reunited for William’s (Kevin Bishop) marriage to a Russian belle.

Russian Dolls has all the hallmarks of Apartment – avant garde editing techniques, quirky story expression and scenarios communicated through an entertaining and thought-provoking script. It’s also packed with the same satisfying degree of funny and deeply human moments.

To his credit, Klapisch is fearless in his story-telling choices but with varying degrees of success. There are some wonderful flights of fancy (Tatou’s turn as a fairy princess is priceless) but other whimsical devices miss the mark – Duris’ pipe playing alter-ego is cute but just a bit twee. Unfortunately, Dolls is a lot more conscious of itself than the utterly fresh Spanish Apartment and this self-consciousness is perceptible in a few clunky scenes and with a cast that’s primped more than its characters such as the supposedly hippy-fied Tatou, who gleams with expensive French skin care products. Here’s hoping that Hollywood’s punishing physical standards won’t infect European realism to the point that we don’t see real bodies on film.

If you like a great contemporary soundtrack, mirth-producing depictions of European characters and out of the ordinary ways of ruminating about life, then Dolls is definitely worth a look.