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I really liked Richard Ayoade’s first film, the Welsh coming-of-age dramedy Submarine, and I also like doppelgänger stories, so it probably won’t come as a surprise that I was impressed by his second effort, The Double. Adapting Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novella of the same name, Ayoade and co-writer Avi Korine (Harmony’s brother) have crafted a film that’s as amusing as it is bleak, mining Kafka and Orwell for inspiration as well as the source material. Jesse Eisenberg plays the slightly charmless and downtrodden Simon, a largely forgettable office drone who has worked without thanks and without making much of an impression on colleagues for the past seven years. He is secretly in love with one of them, photocopier Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), who happens to live in the apartment opposite his own. She seems to like him, too, until Simon’s physical double suddenly turns up at work; by contrast this new employee, James, is ambitious, confident, charming and a hit with the ladies, and he soon usurps Simon in a number of ways, not least with regard to the potential love of his life.

Their place of work is a dimly-lit retro-looking corporation that brings to mind Michael Radford’s adapation of Nineteen Eighty-Four as well as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and it’s filled with all these whirring, oversize computers and other unwieldy pieces of brass machinery that all look as if they need to be powered-up by crank handles. The CEO is simply referred to as ‘The Colonel’ (James Fox), and no-one seems to know what the company actually does, although it produces a nice line in 1980s-style instructional videos. Petty bureaucracy obstructs the employees at every available opportunity; you’ll either find the build-up of this amusing or you’ll sit there stony-faced, wondering what the fuss is about, but I think Ayoade has a great sense of humour and he sends up the trivialities of the workplace with repeated success. Simon has worked at the company for years but still the security guard (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, who also plays two characters) won’t let him in without a pass, which has been lost. He attempts to get a new one from a grinning, nightmarish HR officer (played by the satirist Chris Morris) but is informed that there’s no record of his employment, which means he can’t have a new pass as technically he ‘doesn’t exist’.

Mia Wasikowska in Richard Ayoade's The Double

Mia Wasikowska in Richard Ayoade’s The Double

Spending time in this strange place never becomes boring. The same goes for the other starkly-lit locations that we visit or return to less frequently: a miserable cafe with poor service, a noisy restaurant, the dingy apartment blocks that Hannah and Simon call home. Each is populated with a wandering oddball or two: Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis pops up as a janitor, comedian Tim Key is an uncaring care worker, Chris O’Dowd plays a pushy nurse and Paddy Considine appears on numerous TV sets as the star of a cheapo sci-fi show that resembles Blake’s 7. Ayoade has clearly pulled in a few favours and his casting agents have also carried out their work successfully; on top of all those mentioned above there are appearances by Wallace Shawn and Cathy Moriarty, who played Vicki LaMotta in Raging Bull, while Considine is joined by the rest of the Submarine cast (Craig Roberts, Noah Taylor, Yasmin Paige, Sally Hawkins). Most of these actors fit their quirky, minor roles very well indeed, and that applies all the way up to the two leads, who are tailor-made for this kind of angular, tragicomic material. In fact I haven’t seen Eisenberg in such a well-suited role since The Social Network, and he convinces while playing both sides of the same coin.

In the hands of a lesser talent the balance between creepy paranoia and lashings of dry humour may have been misjudged, but Ayoade gets it just right, rolling between the deadpan and the dystopian with consummate skill. I like the cinematography here, especially the use of a drab brown and green colour palette, and there’s an interesting reliance on front-lit scenes throughout, lending a theatrical air to proceedings. If any corners were cut I can’t imagine the budget being particularly high it’s not noticeable. You could argue that Ayoade lays the obvious motifs on a bit thick, even though mirrors,  reflections and shadows are the bread and butter of any film about identity and duality, but aside from that I can only think to praise this smart, funny film. Great soundtrack, too, ranging from baroque classical pieces to avant-garde adventures in noise to kitsch lounge bands.

Directed by: Richard Ayoade.
Written by: Richard Ayoade, Avi Korine. Based on The Double by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn, Noah Taylor, Yasmin Paige, James Fox, Cathy Moriarty, Tim Key, Sally Hawkins, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, Chris Morris, J Mascis, Paddy Considine.
Cinematography: Erik Wilson.
Editing: Chris Dickens, Nick Fenton.
Music: Andrew Hewitt, Various.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 93 minutes.
Year: 2014.

14 Comments

There’s undoubtedly a lot to admire in Steven Spielberg’s latest film: Cold War drama Bridge Of Spies is certainly well-crafted, like a solid piece of oak furniture, or a Paul Weller album. The acting is commendable, too, and in writing about the diplomacy of the era Matt Charman (whose screenplay was ‘polished’ by the Coen Brothers) seems aware that the GDR/Soviet relationship is almost as interesting as the frosty, delicate one between America and its Communist enemy. The Coens have been credited with injecting the occasional joke or running gag into the screenplay, which is a general assumption that may be doing Charman a discredit, but whoever is responsible has done a good job, as this film seemed to effortlessly draw laughs from the audience in my screening. In short watching it is undoubtedly a pleasure, but I’ve been trying to put my finger on the reason (or reasons) I don’t love it for three or four days now, and haven’t quite managed to do so. I suspect it’s something to do with the predictability that comes with watching Spielberg’s films these days, which creeps in here and there, but even as I type this sentence I feel a nagging sense that I should just suck it up and concentrate on appreciating the many positive aspects of this filmmaker’s work.

Based on real life events, the film stars Tom Hanks in a kind of 98% Optimal Tom Hanksness role as insurance lawyer James Donovan, who in the late 1950s was asked to defend Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance, excellent) after he was caught by the FBI in Brooklyn. It’s one of those everyman roles Hanks has spent a career perfecting: wife (Mary McKenna Donovan, played by Amy Ryan), kids, hat, raincoat, briefcase, ability to identify what makes the U.S. Constitution important, skill to gently make others aware that they’re abusing it, etc. etc. Donovan is a decent man who is asked to step up and act at a level that’s really above his pay grade, but as it’s his government doing the asking he duly obliges with only a modicum of grumbling, even when some nutcase shoots up the family home. Hanks is so good at this kind of thing you’d be forgiven for thinking it was easy.

The first half of the film largely stays with Abel and Donovan, who get on well despite the pressure and discomfort the trial brings to both of their lives, though sporadically we drop in on Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a rookie American pilot about to fly a spy plane over Soviet territory, and later an American economics student based in Berlin called Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers). It’s when the action fully moves to Germany that the three separate strands of the plot converge, and the second half of Bridge Of Spies is mainly concerned with the political wrangling as Abel is swapped for the two American men. This Donovan negotiates with a mixture of bemusement and opportunistic chutzpah, and the screenplay smartly turns the ‘fish out of water’ element of the first half on its head, with Abel’s American sniffle transferring symbolically to Donovan as he passes back and forth across wintry Berlin.

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Mark Rylance as Rudolf Abel in Bridge Of Spies

There are times when Spielberg attempts to treat the US and Soviet governments in an even-handed way, such as the inclusion of separate scenes that suggest Abel and Powers endured similarly one-sided show trials. Occasionally he lets the facade slip, for example when he directly compares the treatment of Powers at the hands of the KGB with the treatment of Abel at the hands of the FBI; the former is tortured with water and his captors cruelly deny him any sleep in order to try and break him, while we see Abel relaxing and carrying on his hobby of painting while being held in a cell in the US, as opposed to undergoing any rigorous questioning about his activities. Even as Spielbergian celebrations of supposed American values go that’s a little hard to swallow, but it’s no surprise to see this kind of juxtaposition, which emphasises a level of fair play and kindness that the old enemy is seemingly incapable of. It’s also no surprise that any American behaviour going against the grain is largely supressed or unseen, unless the perpetrator can be gently lectured or cut down in a face-to-face meeting with Hanks’ Donovan (cue the brass in Thomas Newman’s stirring soundtrack). Elsewhere a few scenes are included that reflect badly one way or another on some of the Germans and Russians involved in the negotiations, such as Sebastian Koch’s lawyer Wolfgang Vogel or Mikhail Gorevoy’s KGB chief Schischkin, but they do tend to add to the light, comic touch, at least, and are balanced out with some cold comments by Scott Shepherd’s CIA operative. Labouring the light and dark / good and bad comparisons, when Abel and Powers are exchanged on the Glienicke Bridge a remarkably tense scene, given that the actual outcome of the swap is well-known the screenplay implies that the American soldier is returning to warm, caring agents and military staff, while the fate of the Soviet spy is less clear.

Of course a partial defence against any historical inaccuracies or accusations of bias is there for all to see in the film’s opening credits: Bridge Of Spies is a drama that is based on true events, which in many eyes exonerates the writers and the director from criticism. This declaration does at least make it easy to overlook some of the more blatant fabrications that have been included to add more supsense and a few extra thrills: a couple of scenes in which shots are fired didn’t actually happen in real life, or at least not to Donovan, but I believe the unofficial 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that at least two guns must appear in any film emanating from Hollywood, and Spielberg has to comply with that here. Facetious remarks aside I was impressed by his direction at times – hard not to be – and his ability to subtly suffuse the film with its share of tension and action (a run-in with an East German gang, a pilot trying to escape a burning plane, Abel being tailed through the subway, etc) is clear for all to see. It’s an amusing film, very well acted, and certainly a classy affair in terms of the costume, sets, soundtrack, cinematography et al; I’m just a little turned off by the way Bridge Of Spies compares the two opposite government agencies, even though the focus is primarily on the individuals who are pawns in their game.

Directed by: Steven Spielberg.
Written by: Matt Charman, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen.
Starring: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Scott Shepherd, Amy Ryan, Sebastian Koch, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell, Jesse Plemons, Domenick Lombardozzi, Will Rogers.
Cinematography: Janusz Kamiński.
Editing: Michael Kahn.
Music:
Thomas Newman.
Certificate:
12A.
Running Time:
141 minutes.
Year:
2015.

 

8 Comments

Christian Petzold’s latest drama Phoenix is subtle and suspenseful, and due to one of its major themes  identity is key here – it has been compared to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, though I was initially reminded of another European work while watching it, namely Daniel Vigne’s Le Retour de Martin Guerre. In that film Gerard Depardieu plays the titular character, who returns home at the end of a war to a village full of people who refuse to acknowledge that he is who he claims to be. In Petzold’s film, which is set in the aftermath of World War II and is loosely based on Hubert Monteilhet’s novel Le Retour des Cendres, it’s just one character who is unable (or refuses) to recognise another, and this serves as a subtle inference that some German people could and would not face-up to their own actions during the war after the Nazis were defeated.

Nina Hoss is excellent as Nelly, a Holocaust survivor who was shot and facially-disfigured at Auschwitz. At the start of Phoenix she is driven back to occupied Berlin, where she undergoes plastic surgery under the watchful eye of close friend Lene (Nina Kunzendorf). After surgery Nelly doesn’t look exactly like she used to and is disappointed by her appearance. She discovers that her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld) is still alive and working at a nightclub called Phoenix, but Lene warns her off seeing him, claiming that she suspects Johnny was the person who betrayed her to the Nazis. Nelly chooses to ignore the advice, and meets Johnny in the club, but he doesn’t recognise her. However he notices that she does bear a resemblance to his wife, who he presumes is deceased, and he convinces Nelly – now going by the name Esther – to help him claim his wife’s considerable inheritence.

This fascinating premise sets up a thoughtful psychodrama in which the behaviour of all three main characters is unpredictable. Phoenix is a slow-burning, atmospheric film, with Berlin a sea of grey, smashed-up concrete, half-reduced to rubble after heavy bombardment by Allied forces. There’s a strong emphasis on colour, and with its deep, inviting red lights the titular nightclub represents a certain kind of bawdy temptation, looking for all the world like a bordello (which it may well be). It’s an alluring dab of passion and life in an otherwise listless, exhausted city, but the red can of course stand for so much more; it’s interesting to note that a dress Johnny asks Nelly to wear as they act out their charade is the same blood red that dominates the nightclub scenes.

People go to Phoenix to drink and either forget about or block out the recent horrors of war, and it’s almost as if Johnny has spent too long in the club, as he has seemingly wiped memories of his own actions and of his wife’s appearance and mannerisms. He is seemingly unable to see what is directly in front of him, and neither can Nelly, who refuses to acknowledge her husband’s previous betrayal. All three of the principle cast members are excellent, but it’s Hoss a Petzold regular who never disappoints that stands out the most, playing Nelly with a kind of shaken, confused and troubled air. The drama here is understated, while Petzold’s film remains tightly-focused throughout, with just two leads and a supporting character appearing for most of the running time. It’s reflective, intriguing and executed with restraint. Sadly co-writer Harun Farocki passed away before Phoenix was released; it’s his second collaboration with Petzold, and the finished film is a fitting end to his long career.

Directed by: Christian Petzold.
Written by: Christian Petzold, Harun Farocki.
Starring: Nina Hoss, Roland Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf.
Cinematography: Hans Fromm.
Editing: Bettina Böhler.
Music:
Stefan Will.
Certificate:
12A.
Running Time:
98 minutes.
Year:
2015.

6 Comments

Last year, to try and add an air of credibility to my ‘favourite films of 2014’ list, I caught up with some real crackers during a particularly-hectic December: I saw Calvary, Mr. Turner, Only Lovers Left Alive, Frank and 20,000 Days On Earth that month, and they all made it into my personal top 20. This year I’ve generally been more on the ball, even if there are some films that I haven’t yet seen that I expect I will enjoy, like Sunset SongBride Of Spies and Song Of The Sea. However one movie I have been intending to watch for several months since missing it in cinemas is Xavier Dolan’s Mommy. It was released to near-universal critical acclaim and received one of those lengthy standing ovations at Cannes that you read about (seriously, those people clap like someone is going to take their hands away from them), while surprisingly it did very well in a poll of Guardian readers’ favourite films of the year recently; I say ‘surprising’ because the rest of the list was made up of more higher-profile releases.

Anyway, having now finally seen Mommy, I’m certain it’ll figure highly in my own list when I come to compile it during the next week or so. This is Canadian Dolan’s fifth film (insert obligatory mention of his relatively young age), and from what I can gather those who know about such things have declared it his best to date; it’s certainly an intense, well-acted piece and it left me wanting to see more of the director’s work. The drama revolves around Diane ‘Die’ Després (Anne Dorval), a widowed mother struggling to raise her troubled and occasionally violent son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), while also focusing on the strong bond the pair form with neighbour Kyla (Suzanne Clément). I’ve seen Die and Steve described as a ‘white trash’ family elsewhere, but I’m loathe to do so as I dislike using the term, plus it comes laden with the kind of baggage that doesn’t seem applicable to these well-drawn characters.

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Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon opens up the frame in Xavier Dolan’s Mommy

Dolan’s story is set in an alternative reality to our own, which is indistinguishable save for some alterations to the way in which troubled children are processed through a national system that appears to be failing; a brief glimpse of one facility reveals that the building has flooded, while the staff at another act in a quiet violent fashion in the car park (though this is not without provocation). At the beginning of the film it becomes apparent that Steve is not getting any better while residing in such an institution, and Die takes him back into her home and into her own care after he burns down the cafeteria and is thrown out. Die’s intention is to home-school the teenager and to be as supportive as possible, but her job is a tough one, and Steve’s behaviour is unpredictable: he can fly off the handle at any minute, and once he starts going down such a path it’s almost impossible to calm him down and return to a state of peace. Their relationship is an odd one, and Steve has clearly developed an Oedipus complex, but they also make for a hilarious double act at times, with Steve being particularly rude to some of the characters that cross their path and Die refusing to hold back when talking to figures of authority. But rather than any sweary social faux pas it’s Steve’s propensity towards violence that is more shocking, and at one point you fear for Die’s safety as he spirals out of control in their house; such scenes are quite harrowing to watch as well as being superbly acted. Kyla seems to have a calming effect on the boy, and hanging around with Steve and Die has its benefits for her, too: gradually her stutter reduces in their presence until it’s barely noticeable.

Dolan is a formalist, and there are some extremely enjoyable confluences of editing, music, cinematography and acting in this film. I have to credit the director for manufacturing some of my favourite scenes this year while using songs I dislike by the likes of Dido (White Flag) and Celine Dion (On Ne Change Pas), the latter of which is turned into a joyous kitchen singalong featuring the main three characters and serves as a kind of cementing of their mutual friendship. There is sheer, unbridled joy to be had watching Steve playing with a spinning shopping trolley while such FM-friendly pop booms away, especially when you realise that he’s clearly listening to something else – hip hop – via his own headphones. And when such a musical interlude leads to a flight of fancy – Die imagining her son as a ‘normal’ child, getting a college degree, having a girlfriend and then getting married – it is surprisingly moving.

As has been mentioned many times elsewhere the majority of the film is presented in a square 1:1 ratio, and this adds a feeling of claustrophobia to proceedings until Steve at one point actually forces back the sides of the frame with his hands, briefly turning Mommy into a more-typical widescreen affair. Such a device could easily feel like a gimmick, but it works well in the moment, briefly allowing for a change of tone as the film takes on a fresh, positive air. When the trick is repeated later it’s just as good: a simple and effective touch that leaves you with admiration for the director’s audacity. Dolan is a real talent, and he has coaxed some fine performances out of his actors here: all three leads produce excellent work, with much of the film’s emotive heft created by the entirely believable interactions between their characters. It’s a relentless, absorbing story, played out in a naturalistic fashion, and it’s as touching as it is uncomfortable. Dolan keeps the pace up and gradually tightens the screw, to the point where you are convinced this is all building up to something terrible and shocking: it kind of does, but the end also represents a neatly-cyclical return to the status quo. A very satisfying watch, and the original soundtrack, by Noia, is my favourite of the year by a country mile.

Directed by: Xavier Dolan.
Written by: Xavier Dolan.
Starring: Antoine-Olivier Pilon, Anne Dorval, Suzanne Clément.
Cinematography: André Turpin.
Editing: Xavier Dolan.
Music:
 Noia, Various.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
132 minutes.
Year:
2015.

6 Comments

I haven’t found many comedies or comedy-dramas in 2015 that have tickled my funny bone, but Appropriate Behaviour had me smirking away regularly, primarily because of the razor sharp screenplay and lead performance by Desiree Akhavan (who is also the director). This is a concise story about a bisexual Iranian-American woman named Shirin, and the failure of her fairly long-term relationship with Maxine, a fellow twenty-something played by Rebecca Henderson. It also serves as an outlet for Akhavan’s sardonic skewering of Persian culture as it exists within the demographic of upper-middle class New Jersey families, at any rate as well as Brooklyn’s infestation of hipsters. The latter probably deserve a break now, and as soon as a millennial with a beard or a tattoo appears here you know they’re only in the film to say something ridiculous before disappearing, but I can’t think of many recent scripts that have picked hipsterdom apart quite as successfully as this one. Noah Baumbach’s last three films have done so to a certain degree, but Akhavan seems to really know the bars, the parties, the apartment interiors and the types, plus she brings a conspiratorial air to Appropriate Behaviour that I find irresistable: Shirin comes close to breaking the fourth wall on a number of occassions, and you feel like the lead character is about to stop and ask you if you can believe what you’re seeing and hearing, even though that never actually happens. Many of the laughs come from awkward silences or near-double takes, and in a strange way the humour here reminded me of the UK version of The Office, which is jam-packed with similar techniques, even though the subject matter is completely different.

It’s a snarky, slightly bawdy and droll comedy, but it also has heart. The use of occasional flashbacks as a means of telling the story of Shirin and Maxine’s relationship is a device that will be familiar to most viewers, but the intimate scenes themselves are well acted and believable enough for that not to matter too much; we see the couple meet on a doorstep outside a New Year’s Eve party, trying to out-cool one another, and then there’s the honeymoon period, followed by a gradual cooling-off and plenty of bickering before they finally split. Part of the problem is the fact that Shirin has not told her family that she likes women as well as men; it infuriates Maxine, who is proud of the fact that she herself is out, even though it has led to estrangement from her family. Shirin is reticent, partly because she knows the reaction of her parents will be negative, and perhaps partly because she’s not quite sure about her own sexual preferences: she sleeps with both men and women during the course of the film, and tells people that she is bisexual, but she seems to derive little or no pleasure from men and a lot more from women. There’s also a sweet subplot about Shirin’s new job as a movie-making teacher in a Park Slope kindergarten, which culminates in one of the funnier scenes I’ve seen this year, a stellar takedown of pretension that comes laced with cringeworthy embarrassment and juvenile fart jokes. The whole ‘break up and move on’ thing may be nothing new, but this is a good example of the way an unusual perspective can breathe new life into such a story, and Akhavan is a very funny writer and performer. It’s just a shame there isn’t more of it: Appropriate Behaviour is several minutes short of an-hour-and-a-half, and I could have happily sat through way more.

Directed by: Desiree Akhavan.
Written by: Desiree Akhavan.
Starring: Desiree Akhavan, Rebecca Henderson, Halley Feiffer, Anh Duong, Hooman Majd, Arian Moayed, Scott Adsit.
Cinematography: Chris Teague.
Editing: Sarah Shaw.
Music:
Josephine Wiggs.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
85 minutes.
Year:
2015.

5 Comments

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Son Of A Gun is a fairly typical crime thriller, and by that I mean it’s full of all the crime thriller stuff that will be familiar to most viewers: a seasoned, vicious, ruthless armed robber (played by Ewan McGregor, whose performances have begun to improve of late after a bit of a dip), a younger criminal taken under his wing (Brenton Thwaites, puppydog eyes at the ready), a rapidly-developing father/son or master/apprentice dynamic, a beautiful femme fatale (Alicia Vikander, who has been in approximately 68% of all new releases in 2015), a bad guy who is worse than the other bad guys, a few double crossings, some meetings and exchanges that take place on patches of wasteland, a couple of violent shootouts and a sprinkling of scenes featuring sweaty men on the run holed up in motel rooms. Though such material can hardly be described as original it’s all executed well enough, truth be told, and occasionally when the action is ramped up this Australian film is actually pretty exciting; director Julius Avery (also the writer) has a flair for set pieces, and Son Of A Gun includes two in the middle that many of the genre’s more seasoned filmmakers would be proud of a simple but tense prison break and a daring gold bullion heist, leading to a fierce gun battle with the cops and a high speed car chase.

That said, some of it is fairly hokey. Thwaites’ character JR meets McGregor’s Brendan Lynch and his cohorts in prison, with a chess game offering up some common ground before Avery turns it into a rather obvious metaphor for all the moves that follow on the outside. Lynch and his men can protect JR from being raped by other inmates, so it makes sense for him to buddy up when the offer comes, but it’s surprising just how quickly (and easily) JR fits into the armed robbery gang when the action moves away from the prison; JR’s six month stint in the big house is apparently for a minor crime, yet before long he’s acting like a career criminal, which is completely at odds with the character’s shyness and inexperience (he can’t swim and Vikander’s Tasha has to teach him how to use chopsticks). This naivety is kind of necessary in terms of selling the final act, but the character’s inherent contradictions take some credibility away from the screenplay. Ach…I don’t want to be too hard on it: it’s a muscular, slick film, very well paced, and considering it’s a first feature Avery shows plenty of promise.

Directed by: Julius Avery.
Written by: Julius Avery.
Starring: Brenton Thwaites, Ewan McGregor, Alicia Vikander, Jacek Koman, Matt Nable, Tom Budge.
Cinematography: Nigel Bluck.
Editing: Jack Hutchings.
Music: 
Jed Kurzel.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
109 minutes.
Year:
2015.

9 Comments

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.
Music:
Various.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
122 minutes.
Year:
2003.

5 Comments
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