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Everyday life as a rigorous education

'L'auberge espagnole' plants exchange students in a Barcelona apartment and watches them grow.

May 16, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

"L'auberge espagnole" literally translates as the Spanish inn, but it's also a French expression for a place where cultures are mixed together like a stew. In both meanings, it is a perfect title for French writer-director Cedric Klapisch's exhilarating comedy, for it is set in a cramped old Barcelona apartment that is home to seven foreign exchange students, each from a different country. This joyous film of unusually wide appeal for subtitled fare celebrates the broadening of horizons that inevitably occurs when young people spend a year together under the same roof in a city as beautiful, cosmopolitan and dynamic as the capital of Catalonia. Its warm, embracing spirit is refreshing in these divisive times.

The film is rich in details both comic and poignant that come only from personal experience; Klapisch drew from his time in New York as a film student and a visit to his sister when she was an exchange student in Barcelona. From his first film, "When the Cat's Away ...," Klapisch has revealed a knack for bringing alive an entire neighborhood and its inhabitants, viewing them with affection and humor but also clear eyes. "L'auberge espagnole" generates the feeling that nothing could be better than to be young and in Barcelona.

Getting there is not so easy, however, for Romain Duris' Xavier, a good-looking young Parisian who goes through miles of red tape to become part of a program that will allow him to study economics for a year at the University of Barcelona. Klapisch opens the film by evoking the exhausting, dehumanizing maze modern life has become -- a maze of freeways, of corridors in immense buildings, of forms to fill out. Xavier has a chaotic time of it until he lands in that apartment. It's pretty hectic, but in a welcoming way; as the son of a hippie-era mother, Xavier has experienced communal living and in an instant feels at home.

Unlike most American movies, "L'auberge espagnole" shows at least some of its students actually cracking books, even studying hard. That doesn't mean Xavier and his new friends are such bookworms they have no time for fun or romance. Xavier has left a rather pouty and manipulative girlfriend ("Amelie's" Audrey Tautou) behind and has drifted into an affair with the beautiful but lonely wife (Judith Godreche) of a busy, obtuse French neurologist (Xavier de Guillobon), who has a position at a Barcelona hospital.

Back at the apartment, a lot is going on. Wendy (Kelly Reilly), a pretty English girl who is forever trying to get others to help her keep the place from becoming a pigsty, has begun a casual affair with the American in the group, and Xavier has struck up a close friendship with a stunning, self-possessed Belgian lesbian (Cecile de France) who passes on to him some nifty instructions on how to seduce a woman. There are inevitable but passing cultural clashes and the usual friction between people living in close quarters. Tension develops when Wendy's brother William (Kevin Bishop, a born scene-stealer) arrives overflowing with innocent but crude cultural stereotypes that he insists on finding hilarious but others find offensive. Not surprisingly, Xavier and others will have their hearts wrenched in the course of the year but will be better, more mature individuals for it. Throughout "L'auberge espagnole," Klapisch evokes a sense of young people experiencing change and growth. But not until Xavier returns home does he discover just how much he has changed. "L'auberge espagnole" is so full and nourishing that even with a two-hour-plus running time, it's sad to see it end.


'L'auberge espagnole'

MPAA rating: R for language and sexual content

Times guidelines: Adult themes and situations, some blunt language

Romain Duris...Xavier

Judith Godreche...Anne-Sophie

Audrey Tautou...Martine

Cecile de France...Isabelle

A Fox Searchlight Pictures and Ce Qui Me Meut presentation of a Franco-Spanish co-production of a Ce Qui Me Meut/Studiocanal/France 2 Cinema/ Bac Films/Mate Productions/Castelao Productions in association with Via Digital and Canal Plus. Writer-director Cedric Klapisch. Producer Bruno Levy. Cinematographer Dominique Colin. Editor Francine Sandberg. Costumes Anne Schotte. Art director Francois Emmanuelli. Set decorator Marie Cheminal. In French, English, Catalan and Spanish, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes.

At selected theaters.

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