Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees thinks this enjoyable French comedy-drama would have been spun off into a new reality TV series if not for the need for copious subtitles.
Where do the French go for lessons in love? Spain, evidently.
If you think of coming-of-age stories as being depressing, angst-ridden, joyless proceedings, then you'll be delighted by L'Auberge Espagnole, which takes a less solemn approach to this kind of plot. Our hero is a young man whose education in life and love is greatly advanced by a year spent in Barcelona, and even though he does deal with disappointments in love, with identity crises, with sexual frustration, and with parents who don't understand him, there's still lots of humor and joy in his experiences. L'Auberge is like nothing so much as the broadening year of travel we all wish we'd had in our twenties.
Facts of the Case
Young Xavier (Romain Duris) is poised to enter the corporate world, but to be competitive he must learn Spanish and become acquainted with Spanish economics. To further that end—and to get away from his earnest hippie mother—he decides to spend a year in Barcelona. But even after navigating the bureaucratic labyrinth to get there, he finds that his plans don't unfold as smoothly as he'd expected. Housing is short in Barcelona, and for a time he ends up crashing on the sofa of a young newlywed couple he met at the airport. Fortunately, he soon finds a group of kindred spirits, a motley assortment of twentysomethings of all nationalities who are sharing a single apartment. Soon he's ensconced there in this impromptu family, where everyone knows everyone else's business even if they don't know each other's language. But Xavier learns that it's difficult to sustain a long-distance relationship with his girlfriend, Martine (Audrey Tautou, Amélie), and it's almost inevitable that part of his education will consist of lessons in love.
The premise for L'Auberge Espagnole sounds almost too much like a multinational version of The Real World for comfort, but don't let that put you off: L'Auberge is a great example of why scripted films are far superior to so-called reality television. At the beginning of the film, when Xavier starts to narrate his adventure, the story makes use of elements of meta-theatrical playfulness to keep the pace brisk and the tone humorous. Mischievous visual touches, like the accumulation of paperwork around the edges of the picture, or skips in the film to elide the passage of time, keep things lively and tongue-in-cheek in lighter moments. As the film progresses and ventures into more bittersweet territory, however, the actors, especially Duris as our young protagonist, keep us invested in the story and make us care about what happens. The plot itself is episodic in nature, more an exploration of a year's experiences than a tightly constructed story that propels itself toward resolution, so it's all the more important that we care about our protagonist, or else the film will lose us. Of course, it's also important that we find interesting the company he keeps, and the broad assortment of personalities does keep us hooked without ever resorting to caricature to do so. Even the abrasive character who sets everyone on edge with his xenophobia and offensive prejudices proves to have hidden admirable qualities. The talented young cast members are uniformly strong, and they work together as comfortably as if they actually had spent a year living together in a cramped apartment.
Xavier himself is nicely written and performed to be someone we can all relate to, whether in his thirst for experience or in his conflicted feelings about becoming a member of the corporate world. Xavier is a bit naïve, a bit unformed, and yet with a basic sweetness about him that guarantees that we remain in sympathy with him even when, say, he's putting the moves on a married woman. The loyalty he displays toward his apartment mates also makes him sympathetic despite his dismissive treatment of his flaky mother. But then, all of these roommates show a loyalty to each other that supercedes their bickering about unwashed dishes and overstuffed refrigerators. One of the best sequences in the film shows just how mutually supportive of each other they are, as they all race to the apartment to prevent one of their number from being discovered by her boyfriend in flagrante with another man.
The tone of the film manages to find the sincerity in important sequences without becoming heavy-handed, and it also avoids sensationalizing Xavier's fleshly adventures. When his pretty lesbian roommate shows him how to seduce a woman, it's not a gratuitous scene designed for titillation or male wish fulfillment; instead, it's a warm-hearted, illuminating interaction between two friends. Despite the quirky devices of the storytelling in some parts of the movie, there's a feeling of realism underpinning scenes like this one that gives the film its emotional impact. There are many scenes where I felt like I was revisiting moments from my college years—charmed moments in time that diminish into hokeyness when we try to describe them to others, but that remain with us when bigger landmark events fade from our memory. The way the film captures these seemingly minor but enduring instants of happiness or awareness or connection makes it feel both personal and perceptive. If it doesn't remind you of your own youth, you'll find yourself wishing you'd spent your youth differently.
L'Auberge Espagnole also benefits from handsome visual presentation. The Barcelona locations give the film authenticity and flavor, and director Cédric Klapisch makes dramatic use of color palettes—dreary blues and greys for the French corporate world, sandy earth tones for early days in Barcelona, and bold, saturated, dazzling color when Xavier's existence in Spain is infused with passion and romance. The visual transfer richly presents these varying palettes and gives us a clear, beautiful picture. My only quibble with the visual transfer is that the subtitles in the widescreen version aren't provided in the black bar, as in many widescreen foreign films; instead, they're placed in the picture itself, which is lower contrast and more intrusive. I should note here that this is definitely not a film for those who dislike subtitles—with so many languages being spoken, I defy any viewer to be able to keep up with the dialogue without them.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is clear and well balanced, using the aural space nicely to convey the sense of characters existing in three dimensions. It's particularly effective in scenes that use overlapping voice-overs to convey Xavier's state of mind; moments like this are satisfyingly immersive. Dialogue is well balanced with the music, which is rendered with admirable clarity.
This flipper disc presents the film in both pan-and-scan and the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. I'm always going to come down on the side of the original aspect ratio, but in this case it's definitely the only way to go, since the pan-and-scan chop job destroys the scenes that use split screen, picture-in-picture, and other visual effects that rely on the original proportions.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Viewers, we have another instance of deceptive marketing. The packaging of L'Auberge Espagnole capitalizes on Audrey Tautou's success in Amélie by suggesting that she's the star of the film, when in fact this is far from the case; her character is an important one, but she doesn't get a huge amount of screen time. If you're seeking a film in which the charming Tautou is central, you must look elsewhere. It's unfortunate that Fox pulls this bait-and-switch, since it may send a lot of viewers away miffed who under other circumstances would have enjoyed this worthy film, but I suppose it's inevitable, given the difficulty of drawing audiences for foreign movies.
The lack of extras is also dismaying, considering that a French making-of documentary exists. How difficult would it have been to throw some subtitles at it and include it here? Surely there must be lots of interesting stories about the origin of the story, the location filming, and especially the experiences of working with actors of different nationalities and different native languages. Because the film seems so personal, I'd also like to know if it is rooted in any actual experiences in the life of writer-director Klapisch. But thanks to the curse of the barebones disc, I'll just have to continue to wonder.
L'Auberge Espagnole may not offer enough plot for some viewers, but it's a highly enjoyable tour through a revelatory year in an exotic setting. L'Auberge doesn't come with any pat answers about the nature of love, or identity, or friendship, but it shows how these things can change our lives. if we let them. Although the French phrase l'auberge espagnole literally translates to "the Spanish apartment," it also stands for something that we get out of what we put into. In that sense, life itself is a Spanish apartment, which is the real lesson that Xavier seems to learn. Travel is broadening, indeed.
This court's jurisdiction doesn't extend throughout all of Europe, and in any case the defendant's misdeeds, if any, are those of impetuous youth. All parties are free to go, as long as they send postcards.
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