I once applied for a job that involved sitting in the “hot seat” while a roomful of people fired questions at me. I badly wanted to be one of the cool ones asking the questions, and so does callow young grad student Xavier (Romain Duris) when he meets his five future roommates, each from a different European country, in L’Auberge Espagnole (The Spanish Apartment), a charming, optimistic, and not unrealistic view of both the new Europe and the nooks and crannies of Barcelona.
The Real Real World
R for Language, sexual content
In the American remake that is bound to follow, a bunch of American kids in their second year of college will meet as roommates in some cool European city — Prague, Rome, or Barcelona, a la MTV’s The Real World. Most of them won’t know how to speak the language beyond “Please,” “Thank you,” “Beer,” and “Where’s the bathroom?” which will be the source of much of the comedy. The rest of the laughs will spring from the various sexual liaisons the group forms with one another. The setup in both versions is ripe for clichéd slapstick and sexual capers, but what we get in L’Auberge is instead truer and tamer.
A Slow Starter
Xavier has lived at home in Paris and completed his undergraduate studies when he decides to build up his Eurocrat credentials by signing up for a year in Barcelona through a Spanish exchange program. L’Auberge is a charming chronicle of the next year as he detaches from his old life and plunges into the new.
The explanation of how Xavier comes to Barcelona drags a bit, relieved by some of the camera work. Fast-forward sequences are amusingly employed to show Xavier’s dealings with large Parisian bureaucracies in applying for a job and for the Erasmus program (a bona-fide exchange program).
In his introduction, Xavier tells of his attachment to his girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou of Amélie fame, here in a thin and thankless role) and his impatience with his hippie mom (Lise Lamétrie). When he finally takes off for Spain, the flight attendant offers him refreshments, and he is overcome with sadness at leaving home and all that is familiar to him.
Strangers in a Strange Land
Sympathetic young Xavier lands in Barcelona and meets a neurologist and his new wife fresh off the plane; they later befriend him. After some searching, he lands the group apartment and starts forging friendships with his new roommates.
Humor and pathos abound in the situation. The group posts a cheat sheet by the phone so they can say “No, ___ is not here. He [or she] will return this evening” in any of the seven languages spoken in the household. They divide up the refrigerator into territories. They confront each other when they think someone is spending too much time on the couch in a blue funk or cheating on a boyfriend or girlfriend back home.
L’Auberge Espagnole is reputedly French slang that loosely translates to “Euro Pudding,” which Xavier’s character muddily explains in a voiceover means “You get out of it exactly what you put into it,” and for Xavier this seems to be true.
We get a nice taste of the bittersweet aspects of long-distance love. Xavier tries (not very successfully) to maintain his relationship with Martine over the telephone (and gets teased by his roommates, who hand him the phone whispering, “Je t’aime, mon amour” to identify Martine’s calls). Other roommates navigate their own entanglements.
Xavier and a few of the others are surprised to learn that Isabelle (Cécile De France), a seventh roommate, found to help with a rent increase, is gay. This situation creates some of the best scenes in the film. In one sequence, Isabelle decides Xavier needs an education in how women like to be made love to, but she doesn’t compromise herself (nor does the film stoop to crudity) in the process. And in one brief but lovely scene, she and Xavier recline together. Isabelle says, “Too bad you’re not a girl,” and he answers with a sigh, “Yes, the world is badly made.”
A Microcosm of a Unified EuropeL’Auberge reminded me of many a late-night college conversation. The seven individuals from seven different European countries find common ground in philosophical discussions without succumbing to stereotypes. An African friend in a bar talks about geography and identity, concluding, “It’s not contradictory to combine identities.”
Director Cédric Klapisch says he created the script after he cast all the actors and let them interact for a while. The film consequently feels spontaneous (although it could have used some more editing). Klapisch only falls for a couple of clichés, like when the British woman, Wendy (Kelly Reilly) says she doesn’t want to go out: “I don’t like nightclubs and techno bores me.” Cut to the next scene: Wendy dancing ecstatically at a nightclub. But this is followed by some nice double-exposure camera work showing the drunken group wandering the streets of Barcelona after their big night out.
Wendy’s younger brother William (Kevin Bishop) comes from London for an extended visit, annoying each of the apartment’s residents by poking at the stereotypes about people from each of the countries they hail from. Ultimately, though, we see the roommates’ bond solidify over their frustration with the boorish character.
The final proof of the group’s loyalty to one another comes in a split-screen extravaganza: Wendy’s British boyfriend comes to Barcelona in for a surprise visit, and as the roommates get wind of it they frantically exchange cell-phone calls and sprint back to the apartment. They all converge in their efforts to head off the flower-bearing Alastair (Iddo Goldberg), who is about to burst in on Wendy in bed with an American. Wendy’s brother saves the day by climbing into her room and hiding her while he pretends to be in bed with the American boy. William delivers a hilarious martyred pout when Wendy mimes her thanks.
In my book, no means no, so I was uncomfortable with the subplot involving the smarmy neurologist and his repressed wife. Xavier rather forcefully wields his friend Isabelle’s lovemaking tips to persuade the wife, Anne-Sophie (Judith Godrèche), into having an affair with him. But Xavier’s interaction with the couple makes him a more interesting character: he is pushy, overwhelmed, curious, funny, awkward, sweet, and mean – all with enthusiasm and a winning smile.
I guess I’d better get to work on that screenplay for the American remake before someone else comes along and reduces it to its most simplistic clichés. This hopeful little story deserves better.