So, it’s fairly widely accepted, thanks to cinematicconvention — and perhaps, the occasional individual experience — that your average college-age American girl will inevitably and enthusiastically stumble all over herself to win the cultured attentions of your average male college-age European foreign-exchange student. With 2002’s L’Auberge Espagnole (The Spanish Apartment), a coming-of-age (read: sleeping-around) tale concerning buttoned-down economics student Xavier (Romain Duris) and his (frequently sexual) misadventures with six other students during a year abroad in Barcelona, writer/director Cédric Klapisch suggested that the phenomenon is not confined to stateside. Hmm.
Les Poupées russes (Russian Dolls) catches up with Xavier five years later: He is now 30, a disgruntled freelancer working odd jobs (ghost writer, soap-opera screenwriter), and in search of true love — or at least a functional definition of it. Preferred method for said search? Oh, you betcha: varied and often meaningless rolls in the coital/copulative hay.
Really, I should be rooting for this guy all the way. I mean, he’s a scrawny, pseudo-sensitive writerly type (sounds familiar) who effectively and with little effort beds just about every woman he meets (sounds impossibly foreign), using little more ammunition than (1) French ancestry, (2) multilingualism, and (3) the propensity to be a bit of a dick. Instead, and due largely to the fact that Xavier is more or less foisted upon the viewer as a sympathetic protagonist (in both films), I find him a bit chafing. He’s whiny, he’s a shit to his mom, he’s unfaithful, and he’s fundamentally self-centered. It’s not that I have a problem with flawed characters; I just don’t find this one terribly interesting.
But, there’s certainly a rather large precedent for protagonists who, despite being somewhat shy, unassuming, and not particularly engaging, are nonetheless inveterate ladykillers whose most pressing problem, often, is getting caught by the women on whom they’re stepping out — though they end up with the nice girl in the end anyway. Whether this sort of thing is mildly or not-at-all inflated autobiography (narcissism), or out-and-out invention (self-indulgent fantasy), the formula generally doesn’t score high marks for me.
Nonetheless, it has worked in the past. And Russian Dolls generally does, too, in the sense that there’s nothing much specifically wrong with it. There are, indeed, some worthwhile comic and cinematographic bits. It’s just disappointing, after a visually inventive beginning and effective early moments of magical realism, to see it settle into a comparatively run-of-the-mill sex dramedy. The pixieish sense of humor makes occasional reappearances, but does so too infrequently, and begins to seem a bit forced and out of place as the picture adopts a less playful, more businesslike tone. Energy slows and the story tends to drag, as the only real tension or motivation to keep watching results from a mild, passive curiosity concerning how Xavier will end up with the girl you can tell he’ll end up with from a mile away. And when he winds up with someone different, it doesn’t feel like an inventive twist, or a commentary on the unpredictability of life and love; it’s just odd and unsatisfying, as there’s seemingly far less emotional justification for the relationship he’s chosen. The most quieting and convincing explanation, perhaps, is that the end sets up a third installment in the Life-of-Xavier series, wherein he will do more globetrotting, self-pitying, and plowing of European chicks en route to a breakdown, forgiveness, and a fulfilling relationship with the girl for whom we viewers are, by now, psychically slapping him about the head and face for not choosing in the first place.
Ah, well. C’est l’amour.