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L'Auberge espagnole***

The new film written and directed by Cédric Klapisch (When the Cat's Away) is one of those confections the French have been effortlessly concocting for the delectation of American audiences for decades now. To be more exact, L'Auberge espagnole is a "Euro Pudding," which is how the subtitles gloss the phrase, an idiomatic locution. (In its entry for the word auberge, my Petit Robert cites the same sentence by Andre Maurois that the film quotes: «Il en de la lecture comme des auberges espagnoles: on n'y trouve que ce qu'on y apporte».) Nevertheless, the movie is no mere play on words, since there is truly a "Spanish Inn" in it. However, this is no inn properly speaking, but an apartment in Barcelona shared by a group of international students where the main character, Xavier (Romain Duris), stays for a year, while preparing to assume a governmental post back in Paris.

The action follows the trajectory of a traditional Bildungsroman. Xavier, who apparently has not traveled outside of his homeland to any extent, leaves Paris reluctantly, silently weeping during the flight to Barcelona. But as a result of his stay, he not only loosens up considerably, but at the conclusion discovers his true vocation as writer rather than economist. In a sequence not without echoes of Mike Nichols' The Graduate, Xavier literally runs out of the sterile bureaucratic nest back home where he is supposed to settle down for the rest of his life and heads for the nearest airport to return to Barcelona. In the process of his becoming more of a Mensch, not a small part is played by his introduction to a hipper lifestyle by his roommates, and by an affair with Anne-Sophie (Judith Godrèche), the wife of a neurologist working at a hospital--this is a French movie, after all.

But Xavier is no Wilhelm Meister nor is he traveling in the eighteenth century. L'Auberge espagnole is as much a film about the emergence of a new Europe after the end of the Cold War and at the beginning of the European Union as it is one about the growth of the protagonist. It is no accident that the apartment, whose inhabitants represent a cross-section of Western European nations including Great Britain, Italy, Belgium, and Germany, is a virtual microcosm of a nascent global culture. From the perspective of Klapisch, the students share common values that enable them to rise above national limits yet without losing differences that are as much personal as they are cultural or ethnic in an indifferent soup of consumerism. 

To be sure, these values are neither traditional ones nor the purportedly "natural" ones of older humanism, but "made": the values of advanced industrial capitalism. And it goes without saying that some people would take a far less sympathetic view of this situation than Klapisch does. Yet the director is no mouthpiece for the "New World Order," but an artist trying to describe contemporary European life as he sees it. Moreover, he effectively stands one stereotype of long standing on its head. In L'Auberge espagnole, the French--as they are depicted in the scenes that take place in Paris--are no "world citizens," but smug  burghers who still believe la belle France is the center of the universe.         

Like When the Cat's Away, Klapisch's new movie is constructed of a series of incidents loosely tied to one another that serve as a pretext for characterization. American motion pictures today, independent as well as mainstream, so relentlessly arc the action toward a dramatic payoff that it can be refreshing to see a film like this one that gives far more attention to the presentation of character. Klapisch has an extremely relaxed style, giving his people the chance to work out their roles as the movie progresses. At times, L'Auberge espagnole has a deceptively naive quality, with the unrehearsed feeling of a documentary--for example, when Xavier is interviewed by his future roommates or when students have a discussion about national identity at an open air cafe. 

Klapisch is not a director like Yasujiro Ozu or Mikio Naruse who uses seemingly trivial occurrences of everyday life as a means of penetrating beneath the surface of things any more than he is a postmodernist like Jean-Luc Godard or David Lynch intent on playing against the conventions, narrative and otherwise, of the commercial cinema. Everything suggests his strategy is less determined by a conscious aesthetic decision than it is by personal style. Nevertheless, Klapisch runs the risk of becoming superficial, particularly in a final rapturous coda in which Xavier stands on a runway imitating a plane taking off and effuses about having discovered his true self, a moment of lyricism hardly justified by the underplayed tone of the rest of the film.   

Klapisch is not a visually innovative director. Here, he tries to offset that weakness by relying on a battery of optical effects, including speeded-up shots, superimpositions, and animation. Yet even the best of these sequences, when he tries to convey Xavier's inebriation during a night out with his friends by superimpositions, goes on too long. Klapisch's tricks are not as obnoxious as the ones that have become routine in American movies, but they add nothing to what is basically a very traditional production. At his best, Klapisch recovers a vein of French cinematic humor that was successfully mined by Philippe de Broca in the 1960s, but which was previously tapped by far greater directors such as Sacha Guitry and René Clair.

In fact, it may be de Broca's place that Klapisch is destined to fill, especially since he has an adroit knack for handling farce that is well displayed in two sequences. In one, the stuffy landlord unexpectedly arrives to inspect the apartment, at a moment when everyone is stoned on weed and the place looks like the proverbial pigsty. In the other, and even funnier episode, Alastair (Iddo Goldbreg), the fiance of the British girl Wendy (Kelly Reilly), shows up without warning when she is in bed with an American guy (Olivier Raynal) she has met in Barcelona. Now, all of her roomies get into the act to try to prevent Alastair from entering her room. 

But it is improbably her cloddish and intransigently butch brother William (Kevin Bishop) who saves the day by pretending to have been caught in flagrante delicto with the American as Wendy hides under the bed. In these scenes, especially the latter, Klapisch's idiosyncratically laid back approach to movie making turns out to be an invaluable asset. It is difficult to imagine any American director able to resist the temptation to milk material like this for all it's worth. But then what should be funny quickly becomes gross and offensive. There are forgettable older French comedies in which the director all too broadly winked at the audience, but these days we have the monopoly on that kind of bad taste.    

Klapisch is ably served by his cast, all of whom give satisfactory if not necessarily memorable performances. Particularly outstanding are Duris as Xavier, Godrèche as Anne-Sophie, Martine Demaret as Xavier's hippie mother, and Paulina Gálvez as a seductive flamenco teacher. The cinematography by Dominique Colin is competent, although not exceptional. But Klapisch has an enormous asset in the city of Barcelona itself, a "real" setting that far exceeds in suggestive power what any CGI wizard could whip up and that provides a perfect counterpoint to Paris, which seems absolutely forbidding in this movie. The famous opposition between the Gothic North and the Latin South which figures in so many works of European literature has rarely found such an apropos illustration in a movie.

Production data courtesy of The Internet Movie Database

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