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MOVIE REVIEW

From France, with love, comes 'Russian Dolls'

When last we saw Xavier (Romain Duris ), the central figure in Cedric Klapisch's cheerily crowded art house hit ``L'Auberge Espagnole " (2002 ), the young man was at a crossroads. A prim French economics student in Barcelona, he had had the starch knocked out of him by a gallery of bohemian roommates from all corners of Europe. He had loosened up, learned to love, rethought his career.

Five years later (in movie time), Xavier is still at that crossroads, and it's getting awfully lonely. ``Russian Dolls," again written and directed by Klapisch, follows the hero's troubles with women with a breezy indulgence and detached comic wisdom that place it just a few yards short of Francois Truffaut territory. The film isn't especially deep, but it's mostly delightful.

Now a Paris-based freelance writer, Xavier still doesn't have a place of his own or a woman with whom to share his life, but there are a wealth of imperfect contenders for the latter. The trouble is that he wants perfection -- he just doesn't know what it looks like.

Ex-girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou , getting more screen time than in ``L'Auberge") is a single mom now and given to snuggling with Xavier when she's not dumping her son with him for weekends away. Ex-roommate Isabelle (sleek Cecile de France ) is great fun to be with but is only interested in other women; getting her into a dress to pass as Xavier's fiancee during a visit to his aging grandpere (Pierre Cohen Victor ) prompts a suitably funny revenge. And there's a possibility for something with a lovely Senegalese shop clerk (Aissa Maiga ), but the hero manages to torpedo that one with panache. Don't even ask about the spoiled supermodel (Lucy Gordon ) whose memoirs he's ghostwriting.

``How can I write about love?" Xavier moans about a subject of which he knows nothing. Hired to pen the sequel to a goopy romantic TV movie called ``Love Passion in Venice," he plays out the scenes in his head, casting friends and random acquaintances in the roles of the lovers. No one fits until he takes on a creative partner: his old roommate from England, Wendy (Kelly Reilly ). Life lesson: Don't write love scenes unless you're prepared to commit to them.

Klapisch steers ``Russian Dolls" with effervescent visual cheekiness, and he gets in a number of digs at the whole silly business of making a sequel. ``Eh, it's too corny," says Xavier about some dialogue he and Wendy have worked out. ``Yeah, but sometimes it's nice to see something like that in a movie," she replies. True enough, especially when prepared by intelligent chefs.

``L'Auberge Espagnole" was a massive hit in Europe among a young audience that saw itself reflected in a movie for the first time: post-Cold War kids for whom national borders were irrelevant. The film captured the real new European Community, and it was giddy with possibilities. ``Russian Dolls" has a similar sense of wanderlust, sending the hero from Paris to London to St. Petersburg in the course of a week, but it's a more familiar piece of work. Who's Xavier, anyway, but a 21st-century variant of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister ?

Klapisch has such an impish gift for human comedy, though, that you stick with the hero even at his most dish-headed, and Duris plays Xavier with brittle but genuine charm. (The actor seems to have picked up an edge from his role as a piano prodigy/thug in last year's ``The Beat That My Heart Skipped. ") It's enjoyable, too, to see the reunion of ``L'Auberge" roomies: de France as the acidulous Isabelle, Reilly's Wendy with her sensual glow, Kevin Bishop as her brother William -- the first film's galumphing comic dolt -- who has matured into a sweet, addled soul who meets a Russian ballerina (Evgenia Obraztsova ) and immediately understands she's his soul mate.

Would that it were that easy for Xavier, whom the movie takes great pains to paint as the author of his own misfortunes. ``We humans are a funny race," says his mother (Martine Demaret ), pointing out that hippopotamuses choose one mate and stay with it for life. Klapisch has made something deliciously close to a nature documentary about the young, the foolish, and the alive.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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