Russian Dolls, the sequel to L'Auberge Espagnole, finds the protagonist, Xavier (Romain Duris), five years after we saw him literally running away from the complacency of careerhood, working as a writer and living in Paris. As the character seems to have matured over this period of time so too does the film’s director. Gone is the childish quirkiness of the first film – there’s a strong story that’s not as easily distracted, as it was in L’Auberge, by amusing antics and various goings-on. Thematically and intellectually, Russian Dolls is stronger than its predecessor.
Stylistically the film is excessively manic and bounces around like a spilt bag of marbles. While its mad buoyancy can be a bit exhausting, especially early on in the film, it’s also the appropriate manner in which to tell Xavier’s story as his life is very eccentric and unfocused. That’s also expressed by the film’s globe hopping – boats, trains, and buses are a consistent motif. Life is motion.
Xavier has a series of romantic and/or sexual relationships with different women, hoping to find the right one – the last, tiny Russian doll in a series of Russian dolls. It examines the relationship between art and life, and how artists tend to create unrealistic and unattainable ideals not only in their work but also in their own lives. It’s a very self-conscious film that often comments on itself, as it does for example with the crowds of oooing gawkers often present when two characters kiss.
Ultimately, the film advocates for the rejection of the imaginary ideal and an embrace of the real, with all its loveable imperfections. After all, that’s a big part of growing up, at least for imaginative artsy types. Of course, real life also kind of sucks, which is why we have art, like Russian Dolls, in the first place.