The Spanish Apartment trilogy

MARCH 28 — There’s something about movie trilogies that give them a particular heft compared to standalone films. 

It could be because a trilogy allows the story time to breathe. It could also be because we associate more plot with quality, as we’re naturally more impressed with stories that have lots of twists and turns in them compared to simple and straightforward ones, and if there’s one thing that trilogies have, it’s definitely a lot of story.

Personally, I think what makes trilogies special mostly comes from nostalgia, of having spent enough time with the characters throughout the unfolding of the trilogy to have emotionally invested enough to care for them as the trilogies play out. 

Time is the key. 

As full of story and exciting the original Star Wars trilogy was, I think it was time spent with Luke Skywalker since he was a mere farm boy, then training to be a Jedi knight and so on and so forth that made us so fond of the trilogy in the first place.

It’s the opportunity to watch people grow, not only Luke but even Han Solo, that made the trilogy such a beloved piece of pop culture. Richard Linklater hit upon this same magic, but in a smaller and more personal way, with his Before trilogy, starting when the two lovebirds Celine and Jesse were idealistic young people up till they were a jaded married couple, covering a span of 18 years in total.

Linklater even made what’s essentially a trilogy into one small yet gigantic little film, the much beloved Boyhood from last year, which covered a span of 12 years in the life of a young boy called Mason Jr. 

And who could ever forget Francois Truffaut’s similarly intimate yet epic account of the life and loves of Antoine Doinel in the four feature films and one short film he made from 1959 to 1979?

In short, there’s a certain kind of special magic when the same directors and actors return to the same characters every few years and continue the story they began with each other years ago. 

Even something as light on character as the Fast And Furious movies will still give its diehard fans a lump in their throats once the realization kicks in that Paul Walker will not be part of that family any more after this.

If trilogies are your thing, especially the Before trilogy, then let me introduce you to another not so well-known trilogy (at least not in the non-French speaking world) usually called the Spanish Apartment trilogy, by director Cedric Klapisch. 

I first saw Klapisch’s name sometime in the late 1990s when I saw his film When The Cat’s Away, a funny and pleasing enough light confection that didn’t exactly make me want to come back for more. And so I didn’t, and haven’t made the effort to see any of his films after that

I broke that duck recently as for some reason I chose to watch his latest film Chinese Puzzle. It could be because it had major French stars like Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou and Cecile de France in a story set in New York, and I was curious to see how a French rom-com set in NYC would play out. Whatever the case, I’m glad I saw it, because it’s one of the most pleasurable rom-coms I’ve seen in recent memory. 

The story is too complicated to explain here, but let’s just say it involves the main character Xavier agreeing to father (artificially of course) the child of his lesbian best friend Isabelle, moving to NYC to be close to his children after his wife Wendy moves there to be with her new boyfriend, faking a marriage in order to get a Green Card and maintaining a good relationship with his ex-girlfriend Martine who’s visiting NYC for work and later on for summer vacation with her kids.

Having not followed Klapisch’s career at all before his, I didn’t realize that Chinese Puzzle was the third film in a series that began with L’Auberge Espagnole in 2002 and continues with Russian Dolls in 2005. The credits in Chinese Puzzle hinted at this history when it showed photos and clips of all the major characters when they were young. They’re now probably pushing 40 in this film and it’s this cusp of "real" adulthood that gives Chinese Puzzle much of its appeal.

Having gone back to watch the other two films, Chinese Puzzle satisfies even more as not only did I get to know how Xavier came to know Isabelle and Wendy (they were housemates during their student days in Spain) and the kind of love that Xavier shared with Martine before this, but I also get to appreciate structural echoes in the films, repurposed to new and better use each time, especially in the farcical final chases to cover up someone’s sexual tryst, most beautifully realized in Chinese Puzzle.

Being "only" rom-coms, of course the Spanish Apartment trilogy doesn’t even pretend to explore the kind of depth that the Before movies do, but when you get to laugh and care this much for these characters, I think it’s done its job well enough already.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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