In 2002, L’Auberge Espagnole (The Spanish Apartment) introduced viewers to the character of French grad student, Xavier Rousseau (Romain Duris), as he attempted to find himself while studying abroad in Barcelona. Russian Dolls picks up Xavier’s story five years later as he enters his 30s and finds that he’s still as restless and ungrounded as ever. While Russian Dolls works fine as a stand-alone project, it gains greater depth with knowledge of the previous film.
As a student, Xavier ran away from responsibility. He left behind his family, girlfriend, and homeland to embark on a fresh adventure with no restrictions or expectations. He shared his liberating experience in Barcelona with a like-minded group of international students rooming in the same apartment, forging a bond that outlasted their school years. The end of the first film found him literally running away from conformist office employment to return to his freewheeling college lifestyle, proving that he wasn’t ready for any long-term commitment.
As Russian Dolls opens, we learn that Xavier has found some success as a hack screenwriter, although his heart isn’t really in it. He’s five years down the road but still drifting, especially in his relationships with women. Those relationships are the heart of the film, acting as a catalyst for his slow march toward maturity and commitment. Although he’s a fairly average man, he’s charming enough to rack up a long string of casual girlfriends in his quest for temporary satisfaction. They never stay in his life for long, and he doesn’t seem to mind as he has no problems finding new conquests. The only exception is his ex-girlfriend from the first film (Audrey Tautou), a woman who has remained a close friend in spite of their previous romantic relationship.
A chance wedding offers Xavier the opportunity to reconnect with all of his college roommates as they reassemble from throughout Europe for the event in St. Petersburg, Russia. Shockingly, the groom is the most obnoxious and unlikely of his former roommates, a boorish oaf who blossomed into a prince thanks to the love of his Russian bride. The clear implication is that if this guy could find true love and contentment, there’s something seriously wrong with Xavier and the rest of the former roommates if they can’t. Will Xavier ever find true love? Does he even want to, or is he content with his life as a player? The film equates his quest to Russian dolls, the toys that fit inside each other in progressively smaller versions, with each successive girlfriend acting as another outer shell in his search for the final prize at the end.
Writer/director Cedric Klapisch reassembled all of the principal international players from the first film and used locations in England, France and Russia, continuing the concept that this was truly a European production, not just a French film. Romain Duris carries the film squarely on his shoulders, but gets strong assists from his former roommates and girlfriends, especially the more recognizable Audrey Tautou (Amelie) and Cecile de France (High Tension). It’s great to see the whole gang together again, although Tautou’s high-profile appearance bends credibility based on Xavier’s otherwise complete exclusion of past flames.
Klapisch likes to use occasional trick photography to add some pizzazz, most notably during a sequence where Tautou cagily describes her past romances to her young child. As she explains that she’s had seven “princes” during her lifetime (Xavier was the fourth), the bedroom transforms into a fairytale scene with her as the luminous princess. There’s also some comedy when Xavier starts spinning tall tales in job interviews to portray himself in a better light and multiple versions of himself appear in the background gaily playing instruments, showing that he’s the pied piper of b.s. The cinematic flair was present in the first film as well, and it’s usually put to interesting use but also brings to mind unwelcome comparisons to Amelie and its rampant image manipulation.
While L’Auberge Espagnole seemed unfocused and somewhat lacking purpose, paralleling the lives of its restless college subjects, Russian Dolls is a much more straightforward endeavor and the more rewarding of the two. Xavier and his friends have matured and become more complex characters, moving firmly into the realm of true adulthood. The first film showed Xavier running away from responsibility, while Russian Dolls finally finds him embracing it.
The DVD offers scant extras aside from a brief featurette, but thankfully offers one improvement over the DVD of the first film regarding consistency of subtitles. Although some of the characters speak in English at times, all lines are subtitled in the viewer's choice of English or Spanish so there's never anything lost in translation.
Written by Caballero Oscuro