This is the story of six strangers who pick a seventh stranger to share an apartment in Barcelona. It's a story about what happens when people stop being polite and start acting real.
Like a multilateralist take on MTV's favorite ensemble doc, "L'Auberge Espagnole" shows a bunch of earnest kids attacking life's little mysteries in an exotic locale. The key differences: The movie is a work of artifice, not a true-life slice of verité (no jokes, now); and there's a definite star among its otherwise egalitarian gaggle of housemates.
That's Xavier (Romain Duris), an uppity French wuss who ventures to Spain for a year to study economics. In so doing, he escapes the clutches of his hippy mother (Martine Demaret) and his equally possessive girlfriend, Martine (Audrey "Amélie" Tautou). As the movie sees it, these women are both guilty of unpardonable sins -- vegetarianism and liking Xavier too much, respectively -- and thus must be put aside like yesterday's Gruyere.
To fully avail himself of the growth opportunities his study program has to offer, Xavier joins an experiment in group living that has him sharing his personal space with students from alien lands like Germany, England and Belgium. Together, this Coalition of the Very Willing explores the rocky terrain of sexuality and cross-cultural bonding. One of the friends proves to be a lesbian (just like Beth A. in Season Two!), and another has a brother who alienates the entire house with his racist comments (just like everybody in Season One!) Then again, there is a reference to roomies drowning their sorrows in a marathon of MTV viewing, and the script does include the line, "Life can be worse than a bad sitcom." So here's hoping the tip of the hat to Puck and company is intentional.
Xavier, however, does not confine his social activities to the flat, conducting a clandestine affair with the repressed wife (Judith Godrche) of a controlling French neurologist. And he wonders why his relationship with sensitive little Martine subsequently hits les rocks?
Much of what happens in "L'Auberge Espagnole" (which means either "The Spanish Inn" or "Euro Pudding," depending on who you talk to) is faintly imbecilic. But that's what being a young adult is like a lot of the time. And besides, there are plenty of luscious Spanish landscapes to survey -- so many that you occasionally want to hiss, "Down in front!" in hopes that the characters will get out of the way.
Writer/director Cédric Klapisch plays the youthful-exuberance card for all it's worth, often coming up with a winning hand. He shoots selected portions of Xavier's exchange-application process in comical fast-motion, a cute technique that reminds us how much bureaucratic nonsense consumes the precious minutes of our own lives. Klapisch is so taken with the idea that you almost don't begrudge him for employing it over and over again unto distraction.
The only time "L'Auberge Espagnole" truly qualifies as off-putting is when it tries to grow up. Not content to let his cast of walking tourist brochures supply their own dramatic context, Klapisch uses voice-over narration to explain their importance as symbols. They're not just a random group of party hounds, you see. In their messy but necessary progress toward mutual understanding, they are the new Europe!
Thanks, kids. We really wouldn't have figured that out without your help.