L’Auberge Espagnole, a film that has also been released under the assorted titles Pot Luck, The Spanish Apartment, The Spanish Hotel, Una Casa De Locos and (my personal favourite) Euro-pudding, is the first film in a trilogy of dramedies by French director Cédric Klapisch. It revolves around a straight-laced young man in his mid-20s named Xavier, played by Romain Duris, who leaves his girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou) and native Paris behind for a year in Barcelona to take part in the Erasmus program, which facilitates student exchanges so that they can study in foreign countries. In Catalonia Xavier winds up in a cramped flatshare that comes across as a western European league of nations, with fellow residents from England, Italy, Germany, Denmark, Spain and Belgium. There’s some discussion in the film about national identity, particularly relevant given the setting, but mostly the melting pot scenario is used for its comic potential, with playful jokes about linguistic misunderstandings and slight personality clashes abounding. There are elements of farce, too, as extra-curricular relationships are introduced in tandem with visiting partners from home and wacky siblings. Meanwhile Xavier wrestles with some pretty enviable predicaments: I’m not sure any character who cheats on poor old Audrey Tatou deserves anyone’s sympathy, but Duris is a really likeable actor and he manages to sell the introspective Xavier as a good guy despite his unfaithfulness; at first he’s after his Belgian roommate, but soon discovers she’s a lesbian and focuses his attention on Anne-Sophie (Judith Godrèche), one half of the couple that kindly put him up when he first arrived in the city. Meanwhile Martine pouts away while talking to Xavier on the phone in rainy Paris, blissfully unaware of all the philandering going on in sun-kissed Barcelona, though their long distance relationship becomes strained for other reasons. He’s also got a plush job as an economist lined up once he finishes his studies too, although (cliché ahoy!) Xavier actually wants to become a writer: which path do you think he chooses by the end of the movie?
It’s the kind of film that I imagine is disliked by a lot of people, but if you’ve ever experienced a life of shared fridges, unfriendly landlords and arguments about whose turn it is to do the washing up (or even to clear the pubic hair out of the shower, as is the case here) then you’ll find much of it amusingly familiar. It may have something to do with the recent events in Paris but I actually liked the film’s innocent, genuine desire to celebrate Europe as a mix of nationalities and ideas and cultures, although the characters in L’Auberge Espagnole are nearly all white, middle class and photogenic, and watching a bunch of good-looking people swan around Barcelona having a great old time of it may well induce several fits of acute jealousy in some. The film partly comes across as an homage to the city itself, with various famous sights included – Parc Guell, the Gothic Quarter, the Sagrada Familia and Barceloneta all feature as backdrops – but Klapisch keeps the focus primarily on the characters and their lives together in the apartment. By the end I could certainly see why two sequels have been made to date (2006’s Les Poupées Russes, aka Russian Dolls, and 2013’s Casse-tête Chinois, aka Chinese Puzzle), and I’m keen to see what happens to some of these characters post-Barcelona, which I guess is a way of measuring the film’s success. It’s a little bit hyperactive at times (the use of sped-up footage, split screen, colour filters and unnecessary minor visual tics begins to irritate) but I’m feeling generous and I’m inclined to suggest that it’s indicative of the film’s energy, and a director full of ideas. Duris is OK as the conflicted guy at the heart of the movie, while Cecile de France is probably the standout actor, picking up a César Award for her performance as the Belgian roommate Isabelle.
Directed by: Cédric Klapisch.
Written by: Cédric Klapisch.
Starring: Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Judith Godrèche, Cécile de France, Kelly Reilly, Barnaby Metschurat, Cristina Brondo, Kevin Bishop, Federico D’Anna, Christian Pagh.
Cinematography: Dominique Colin.
Editing: Francine Sandberg.
Running Time: 122 minutes.