The motley crew of students whose DV-lensed adventures in a shared Barcelona household made “L’auberge espagnole” one of the most cost-effective international hits of 2002 — 3 million tickets in Gaul alone — is back in “Russian Dolls.” Set five years later, with characters on the cusp of 30, Cedric Klapisch’s incident-packed sequel seems poised for brisk biz in multiple territories. Viewers who thought the protags were superficial and annoying first time around will find little to change their minds here, but original pic’s fans will probably embrace the now-scattered group’s marginally more mature dilemmas centered on work and romance.
Having ditched the career in international finance he trained for, Xavier (Romain Duris) is barely making ends meet as a writer-for-hire in Paris. Creative writing has taken a permanent back seat to puff pieces, ghost-writing and substandard scripts for made-for-TV movies. “I wrote a book called ‘L’auberge espagnole’ five years ago, but haven’t been able to find a publisher,” he notes in his extensive voiceover.
Film is framed by Xavier typing on his laptop aboard the Eurostar train between Paris and London, reminiscing about his pals from Barcelona and how they all came to be in St. Petersburg to attend the wedding of English stagehand William (Kevin Bishop) and Russian ballerina Natacha (Evguenya Obraztsova). William had thrown the Spanish apartment into upheaval when he came to visit his sister Wendy (Kelly Reilly).
The episodic narrative bounces back and forth in time, and is sometimes strained, sometimes amusing and frequently too convenient. Nominal theme is casual bachelor Xavier’s search for love and self-actualization in a high-speed, fragmented world. But as the overlong pic wears on, it’s hard to care whether the puzzle pieces of the protags’ lives fall into place or not.
Xavier’s ex-girlfriend, Martine (Audrey Tautou), has a young son by a never-seen father, still carries a semi-torch for Xavier and, like all the characters on display, is searching for true love. Simultaneously cranky and cute, Martine seems like more of a prototype than a real person.
Pic’s best adjusted protag (and liveliest perf) is Cecile De France’s Isabelle, a forthright lesbian whose expertise in the stock market has made her a sought-after television commentator. Isabelle gave Xavier tips on landing girls in first pic and their friendship is still so strong that he moves in with her when a sub-let falls through.
Xavier is writing an idiotic romance for French TV. (“Don’t be afraid of cliches,” urge his employers. “Everybody likes postcards and sunsets.”) When it becomes a co-production with the BBC and needs to be rewritten in English, Xavier starts working with none other than London-based Wendy, who’s having a hard time ending her romance with a violent stoner.
Further complicating matters is a dream assignment to ghost-write the autobiography of top fashion model Celia Shelburn (Lucy Gordon), whose Paris apartment has a gorgeous view of Notre Dame Cathedral. As he zips to and fro under the English Channel, Xavier has to decide whether to trade merely words or also bodily fluids with both women.
Locations in Paris, London and St. Petersburg have been chosen with an eye for local color, but DV lensing seems needlessly muddy and ragged much of the time; some sections look as if they were shot on a cell phone. Still, Klapisch wields digital effects for maximum humor, emphasizing the hypocrisy seemingly built into publishing, media, fashion and other hip realms.