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In 1996, Cédric Klapisch was on the short list of French directors who, if there had still been a significant market for subtitled cinema, deserved to be international stars. A decade later, the director of When the Cat’s Away has earned a place on an even tinier roster: directors of recent foreign-language movies that actually made some money in the United States. Too bad that in qualifying for the second list, he lost his place on the first. Klapisch’s L’Auberge Espagnole, a 2002 art-house smash that centered on a Barcelona apartment, had some of his previous work’s freshness and whimsy, but it was also significantly more conventional. Now he’s taken the utterly ordinary step of making a sequel. And like its characters, Russian Dolls is worldly, attractive, and shallow enough for the megaplex.

The film opens with its prime mover, now 30-ish Xavier (Romain Duris), riding a Eurostar train, a symbol of Europe’s new unity that we haven’t seen since last week’s Clean. As he taps away on his laptop—Xavier has graduated from grad student to ghostwriter/soap-opera scriptwriter—he ponders his enduring fascination with women. He thinks of ex-girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou), with whom he parted during the previous movie but is still friendly. More telling is the flashback to another fetching ex, Neus (Irene Montalà), who once quarreled with Xavier and ran from his apartment without collecting her clothes. Neus is a very small part, but she can be seen as the film’s emblem: Running stark naked through Paris’ picturesque streets, she exemplifies a dedication to sexy young people and pretty old places that verges on the oppressive.

Xavier can’t settle on just one woman, and who can blame him? All of the ones he meets are stunning—and quite willing. (If there’s a lovely in France, Britain, or Russia with a boyfriend she wouldn’t drop in an instant, Xavier never encounters her.) As the story hops across Europe’s time zones and back and forth across the past few years, Xavier maintains platonic relationships with Martine (now a single mom) and lesbian pal Isabelle (Cécile de France)—both now in Paris—and initiates romances with Franco-African sales clerk Kassia (Aïssa Maïga) and London-based writing partner Wendy (Kate Reilly). (All but Kassia are L’Auberge Espagnole holdovers.)

It’s Wendy’s brother William (Kevin Bishop) who falls for a Russian doll, ballerina Natacha (Yevgenia Obraztsova), and their marriage brings the original film’s flatmates to St. Petersburg for a reunion. By then, Xavier has botched his relationship with Wendy by taking up with a ghostwriting client, pampered 24-year-old supermodel Célia (Lucy Gordon), who’s preparing her autobiography. In a pivotal sequence, Xavier contemplates the beauty of the mute, slo-mo’d Célia, explaining in voice-over that the model is the human equivalent of St. Petersburg’s famed “street of perfect proportions.” Xavier is a connoisseur of the female form, of course, but this is nutty: Célia is no more striking than Martine, Neus, Isabelle, Kassia, Wendy, or Natacha—not to mention the few L’Auberge Espagnole lookers who appear fleetingly or not at all in the sequel.

Xavier seems more feral in Russian Dolls than in its predecessor, but that might just be the lingering effect of Duris’ audacious performance in last year’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped. Bishop is given a bit more range this time around, although his character doesn’t really add up, and the other male characters are single-faceted at best. The women aren’t offered much more nuance, even if Tautou does get to show a variety of emotions. Inspired in part by François Truffaut’s The Man Who Loved Women, the movie is entirely Duris’ show. When the logistically impossible concluding scene shows that he’s reconciled with one of his exes, it hardly matters which one.

“Don’t be afraid of clichés,” Xavier is advised by a soap-opera producer, and Klapisch’s script takes that advice. If he and his characters are a little self-conscious about the commonplaces of romantic comedy, they employ them nonetheless. (When one character proposes a fictional romantic speech to a co-writer, you know the other will eventually deliver it for real.) Klapisch has recently said that he remains “a director who directs after the fact,” yet the improvisational, daily-life feel of his early work is gone. As in L’Auberge Espagnole, he tries to compensate by playing digital-video tricks that gently scramble the sense of reality—though there’s little of that here. Russian Dolls is a vision of the new Europe in which all the fanciful old assumptions of the Gallic sex comedy still apply.

The King is also the story of a young seducer—and one who has even less command over his instincts than the feckless Xavier does. Or maybe he has immaculate control: The damage Elvis Valderez (Gael García Bernal) inflicts on a Texas household is sufficiently comprehensive to suggest an elaborate master plan. Then again, Elvis is so thinly conceived—and so blankly played by the Y Tu Mamá También star—as to disallow this option. So perhaps Elvis is meant to be an idiot savant of domestic mayhem—in which case the only remaining objection to director and co-writer James Marsh’s coolly lurid scenario is that it’s kind of dull.

The opening credits begin as Elvis prepares for his discharge from the Navy, a sequence staged to a deafening—and ironic—Dolly Parton rendition of “Peace in the Valley.” Taking his rifle with him as a harbinger, the clean-cut cipher buys a car and drives to—more irony—Corpus Christi. There, he scopes out David Sandow (William Hurt), the mutton-chopped pastor of a hip fundamentalist church, and his family.

David’s adored son Paul (Paul Dano) fronts the church’s Jesus-rock band and has one more project before heading to college: convincing the local school board to add intelligent design to the curriculum. David’s quiet wife Twyla (Laura Harring) and passive daughter Malerie (Pell James) have lesser roles in the household. In one moment that’s supposed to reveal much about the Sandows and their benighted region, Malerie is seen dutifully cleaning up the bloody remains of a doe David and Paul killed on one of their bow-hunting trips.

The underlying issue is quickly revealed. Before David was “saved”—and married—he fathered another child: Elvis. At their first meeting, David rebuffs his natural son and tells him to stay away from his family. Instead, Elvis secretly courts Malerie and is soon her clandestine incestuous lover. (Will she get pregnant? Do you even have to ask?) Then Paul vanishes after an argument with his dad, and in his confusion and remorse, David decides to change his life. He confesses his premarital indiscretion to his congregation and invites Elvis to live in Paul’s now-empty room. That, of course, is a bad idea.

Marsh is a Briton with a taste for American Gothic. His previous films include Wisconsin Death Trip, a docudrama about an isolated 19th-century town’s affinity for murder. His writing partner for this movie is Milo Addica, whose credits include Monster’s Ball and Birth, stories in which the past creepily asserts itself. And so it does in The King, a film that—not unlike Birth—attempts to sell a contrived premise through rigorous underplaying. All of the major characters, even the one embodied by notorious overactor Hurt, seem sedated. Dabo’s Paul, who tries to balance religious humility with teenage cockiness, is the most believable of the principals, and he vanishes midway through the story.

At least one critic who was once a 16-year-old girl accepts Malerie’s exceptional susceptibility, so perhaps her character is plausible. A similar allowance can’t be made, however, for Elvis, who drives the entire story while appearing largely unmotivated. In cinematographer Eigil Bryld’s elegant compositions, he’s a ghostly presence seen through a glass darkly, reflected in mirrors, or framed in the middle distance. This king is merely a pawn in a game that’s fixed against not just him but against all of the characters.CP