Friday, July 6, 2012

L'Auberge espagnole Movie Review

It takes a certain personality type to leave one’s home country to spend a year in a foreign place. It takes an even different type to make the most of the experience and truly enjoy it. I moved to Spain when I was 27 and I remained there for five and a half years. What made me want to get away in the first place? Since I was a teenager I knew I wanted to travel and see the world. I never imagined myself tied to one location for too long a time. Others come into the experience in a different way. I felt myself pulled toward living abroad. Other people do it because they think it’s something they should do or because they think it will enrich them personally or professionally. But those who come out the other end feeling like it was the best time of their lives share some intrinsic quality that is open to outside opinions and ways of living.

Xavier (Romain Duris) is a French university student in L’Auberge espagnole, and in the beginning he doesn’t know what he’s in for. But at the end he comes out a whole new person. It is this film more than many other things that helped push me toward a life in Spain. Hoping to get a cushy government job after finishing his degree in economics, his future boss encourages him to spend an Erasmus year in Spain to learn Spanish and get some cultural perspective. With a few editing and camera flourishes, director Cedric Klapisch (who also wrote the screenplay) whisks us quickly through the lengthy process Xavier must go through to study in Barcelona.

Before we know it he’s arriving in the city he will call home for the next year. Klapisch’s writing reveals a man who has had the experience of living in another city as Xavier’s narration talks about unfamiliar streets that will eventually look common to him after he’s crossed them thousands of times. The scene of his arrival immediately brought to mind my own arrival in Seville. You look around and all that you see is new and magnificent and full of promise. Five years later it has become the buildings you see and streets you traverse on your way to work every day.

After a few bumps along the way including a brief stint staying at the home of a married French couple he meets at the airport, he finds an apartment to live in. The title of the film translates as “The Spanish Inn,” but is also apparently a French expression indicating a melting pot. The apartment Xavier ends up living contains a cross-section of Europeans, most of whom are doing an Erasmus year like him. Soledad (Cristina Brondo) is the Spanish girl; Isabelle (Cécile De France) is the Belgian classmate of Xavier whom he invites to live in the apartment when the rent is increased; Wendy (Kelly Reilly) is English; there are also roommates from Italy, Germany and Denmark.

Like all those who came before him and all those who will follow in his footsteps, Xavier has no idea what awaits him on his adventure. He leaves behind an adorable girlfriend (Audrey Tautou) in Paris, whom at first he can’t stand to leave. Soon enough, he’s engaged in an affair with Anne-Sophie (Judith Godreche), the woman whose husband allowed him to crash on their sofa upon his arrival. Cheating on your significant other is part and parcel of spending a year abroad, I suppose. Wendy carries on with an American guy despite having a boyfriend back in the UK.

The movie would not be nearly as memorable as it is if it weren’t also quite funny. Klapisch maintains a lively pace throughout the film and makes the most of the comedy that can be drawn from having people of different cultural backgrounds living practically on top of one another. He plays with stereotypes as a way of illustrating the way the European Union comes together as one big melting pot. The German roommate is very organized and strict. The Italian is sloppy. When Wendy’s younger brother William (Kevin Bishop) comes to visit he makes a complete ass of himself in the most awkwardly uncomfortable way possible. Living down to the British stereotype, he is completely ignorant and vulgar about people of different nationalities and he makes no friends for himself in his sister’s apartment. But as crass as he is and as much as you might want to smack him in the face when he opens his mouth, you recognize that he’s just trying to be funny and get attention. His jokes and impressions are played with a tone that hovers on the border of pushing the film into too dramatic territory, but Klapisch keeps it this side of amusing.

My biggest fear watching L’Auberge espagnole about eight years after the last time I saw it was that it would no longer resonate emotionally with me or that my experiences living abroad would have changed my attitude toward the film and somehow dampened it. I am thrilled to say that the film still filled me with delight and still felt completely real. I recently recommended it to a work colleague who just got back from a month in Spain. I think he’ll love it. If you have any passion for living in a foreign country, you probably will too.

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