Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed May 28, 2003 2:53 pm 
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Spanish salad goes down easy.

L'Auberge Espagnole is definitely a success, a fresh, lively, well-edited film about multinational youth in the happy salad of the European Union. After a brief but unpleasant struggle with the French bureaucracy to get permission, a nervous, driven young Parisian named Xavier (Romain Duris) tearfully leaves his clingy girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou, of Amélie) and his well-meaning hippy mother (Martine Demaret) to join an Erasmus study exchange program in Spain so he can get a government job in economics a friend of his father's will arrange for him once he's learned sufficient Spanish. Coming off the plane in Barcelona he meets a smug and talkative French neurologist with a beautiful young blonde bride named Anne Sophie (Judith Godrèche). After some false starts staying with people, including the French couple, he's overjoyed to find a flat with other students, girls from England and Spain, boys from Italy, Norway, and Germany. It's a real as well as figurative "auberge espagnole,' because the phrase means a mess in French, but literally a Spanish inn. The amiable disorder seems just like home and Xavier's world is suddenly filled with friendliness and delightful possibilities.

Klapisch's film was shot in high definition video and deftly edited with lively gimmicks like clicking sounds and speeded up film when X. is walking in the bureaucratic hallways, collages of documents piling up across the screen when he's finding out what he has to do and shots of the computer screen when he writes. Images fly in and out just when needed. You see a little black and white snapshot of Xavier and hear his child's voice each time say "I want to write books," because then he did (and soon he will again).

Grown up Xavier's voiceover starts things off. When he brings a cool Belgian girl (Isabelle, Cécile de France), from his econ class to help pay the raised rent, she shares his little room and they start to snuggle. His whiney girlfriend is forgotten, except for when he and she have intense long-distance phone conversations that everybody in the living room hears. But Isabelle turns out to be lesbian. Nonetheless, Xavier is having a swell time. The fridge is getting to be a mess, there's junk all around the rooms, but there's a lovely atmosphere: everyone has fun in the big multilingual family.

Things are complicated for Xavier and for the whole flat. The girlfriend's visit is a disaster. She's a pouter and won't make love because the flat doesn't seem to her private enough. The neurologist asks Xavier to go on outings with his wife, who knows no Spanish and is scared to go on her own, and Xavier is only too glad to oblige. Well, she's a bit dull and repressed, but a hot secret affair develops once Isabelle gives him some vivid tips on how to please a woman. The English girl and the Norwegian boy have people who turn up and bring trouble. The Parisian girlfriend calls and says she's with someone else.

Despite Isabelle's lesbianism, such a loving relationship grows up between her and Xavier that she wishes he were a girl. "The world is badly made," Xavier replies.

The affair with Anne Sophie has to end. Like many a good looking young man in the formative stages, Xavier is trying to please too many people, and he thinks he's going nuts and gets himself tested by the neurologist. The doctor gives him a clean bill of health but, having found about the affair, orders Xavier to leave his wife alone and make himself scarce.

The story seems mostly about infidelity: everybody who comes in for close scrutiny is doing it. Some of the other roommates aren't developed, but the focus is on Xavier, and Romain Duris interprets his role with conviction: he gets to go through pretty much all the emotions, all believably.

Wendy, the English girl (Kelly Reilly), is particularly charming in her absolute directness and honesty. She seems a bit prim and fussy with her complaints about the mess (it's she who gets some order maintained) and her no-nonsense hairstyle, but she's very well put together and proves quite the party animal. The mix alters when her brother William (Kevin Bishop) comes for an extended visit. William has a dangerous quality: he's charming and charismatic, but also a bit of a bigot, pushing all the wrong buttons of the lodgers with his wanton chauvinism. He could be taken as symbolic of the UK's reluctance to join the European union. Of course there is much focus on Xavier's adventures, but all the scenes in the flat are equally intense and significant no matter who's involved.

To enjoy L'Auberge Espagnole it's important to appreciate the character of Xavier and not expect more of him than a young man of his type can give. A little too tightly wound but not very fully formed, he's nonetheless open to all the opportunities he's offered, and, judging by his reception by the ladies, also rather sweet. Blank slate though Xavier is, Romain Duris does an excellent job of giving his character vivid emotions and an appealing face. He represents the stable center that makes Klapisch's loose improvisational style hold together.

I was surprised at how happy Xavier's story made me feel, especially when Xavier first moves in with the group and can hardly believe his luck. Studying in a foreign land has never been made to seem more fun in a film and Xavier gets to do a whole kaleidoscope of coming of age things: relating to peers, learning to understand parents, juggling older and younger lovers, hanging out with friendly locals and learning to talk "puta madre" Spanish from pals in a bar -- and somewhere along the line he keeps up with his studies. Klapisch welds the story into a seamless gel using the flat mates as the glue. And I was surprised at how sad I felt when it was all over, the mates say goodbye and Xavier goes home to Ma, and, finding the sought-for job a shriveled prune of a thing after the new world the Erasmus program has opened up to him, sets up in front of the computer and writes a book, just as he wanted to as a child: the story of L'Auberge Espagnole. Ah youth!

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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