'L'Auberge': Group Dynamite

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 23, 2003

IN ALMOST every way that I can think of, "L'Auberge Espagnole" is a perfect movie. (Okay, it doesn't have a techno-messiah in $400 sunglasses and a priest's cassock swooping down over an exploding tractor-trailer to rescue someone who holds the key -- literally -- to the universe, but in every other way it's perfect.)

An intimate, character-driven charmer about a Barcelona apartment filled with a mini-United Nations of college exchange students from England, Germany, Denmark, Italy, Spain, Belgium and France, "L'Auberge" is funny, smart and sexy, not to mention the best advertisement for the euro I've ever seen. Its vision of a world in which (almost) all of us get along, even though half the time we have no idea what the other person is saying, is sweetly optimistic without being corny.

While a comedy, and a darn clever one at that, "L'Auberge" is also about some significant, if not earthshaking, themes, namely love, loyalty, heartbreak and figuring out exactly what you want to do when you grow up. In a refreshing change from Hollywood's pandering to demographics, it's also a movie about young people that isn't exclusively for young people. In its broad embrace it also appeals to those members of the audience who merely remember what it was like to be young and foolish and frustrated and full of beans. In case you've forgotten, "L'Auberge" will remind you. It is a film that feels alive.

A few more things. It's also filled with some really good acting; it's not based on a comic book; and it's great fun to look at. And not just because the cast is hot. French writer-director Cedric Klapisch shakes up the screen with cute-but-not-gratuitous camera and editing tricks that remind me of the first time I saw "Blood Simple," before anyone ever heard of the Coen brothers.

Narrated by French college senior Xavier (Romain Duris, so good in an obscure little film from 1997 called "Gadjo dilo"), "L'Auberge Espagnole" is the tale of his coming of age. Taking place in that cauldron of hormones, unwashed dishes and someone else's hair in the bathtub known as the group house, Xavier's story incorporates the stories of his Barcelona roommates: Wendy from Britain (Kelly Reilly); Tobias from Germany (Barnaby Metschurat); Lars from Denmark (Christian Pagh); Soledad from Spain (Cristina Brondo); Alessandro from Italy (Federico D'Anna); and Isabelle from Belgium (Cecile De France). Next to the house telephone, naturally, there is a list, in a half-dozen languages, of how to say "He/she's not home right now. Can you call back later?"

While much of the action concerns lust -- Xavier misses his girlfriend back home (Audrey Tautou), Xavier seduces a lonely, older married woman (Judith Godreche), Xavier gets lessons on making out from a lesbian housemate -- a larger theme looms. While it involves, on one level, a simple nostalgia for youth, firm flesh and the first time any of us encountered that scary, exhilarating thing called freedom, "L'Auberge" also confronts the notion of how we become who we become.

As Xavier learns, we are not who our parents, our teachers or our employers expect us to be. We are the product of all our glorious failures, of all the disasters that, in hindsight, turn into fabulous adventures (and great little movies). We are everyone we have ever shared a laugh or a filthy, overcrowded apartment with, and we are everyone we have ever loved.

"L'AUBERGE ESPAGNOLE" (R, 116 minutes) -- Contains obscenity and sexual situations and dialogue. In various European languages (mostly French and Spanish) with subtitles. At the Avalon and the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.

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