'L'Auberge': Wow, What a Trip!

By Ann Hornaday
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 23, 2003

"L'Auberge Espagnole" is a French phrase that, loosely translated, refers to a place or situation in which the usual rules don't apply. Writer-director Cedric Klapisch has taken that meaning to heart, creating a film that's a freewheeling, multilingual, multimedia homage to the spirit of discovery and romance.

A dazzling, dizzying portrait of a young man's grasp for youth before he settles into buttoned-down adulthood, the film explodes on the screen in a series of rapid-fire images and polyglot sounds. It's an exhilarating, funny, very sweet movie, one that provides a much-needed infusion of sun and fresh air during a spring that has been dismal, inside and outside the cineplex.

Romain Duris plays Xavier, a college senior living in Paris whose father has arranged a job opportunity for him at a French ministry. The only catch: Xavier must spend a year in Spain, brushing up on his Spanish and the country's economic system. The film opens as Xavier departs for Barcelona, soaring into an uncertain future and leaving behind his beautiful girlfriend, Martine (Audrey Tautou).

Except that the story doesn't open this way: As Xavier explains during the narration he provides throughout the film, it actually begins earlier than that. The plane taking off is a false start, a conceit that Klapisch handles by stopping the film and, almost literally, rewinding. It's just the first of several examples of Klapisch's hyperactive but always sure directorial hand, one that makes "L'Auberge Espagnole" a giddy visual and sonic melange. Klapisch speeds up the film and sound, breaks the image up into split screens and adds documents and texts to the picture in a spirited, kinetic cinematic collage. The effect is not just a gimmick: The busy imaginative universe perfectly reflects Xavier's confused and often conflicted 25-year-old mind, and it also captures with note-perfect chaos the multicultural world he's about to enter.

When he gets to Barcelona, Xavier immediately makes the acquaintance of a young, attractive French couple, who agree to put him up when his accommodations for the year fall through. As he befriends the woman, Anne-Sophie (Judith Godreche), who just married her husband a couple of weeks before, Xavier also looks for another apartment. He finally finds one inhabited by six other foreign exchange students, all from different countries. Xavier moves in and becomes part of a European Union incubator, full of the same tensions, affection and functional lunacy that characterize the global village.

The subplots and crosscurrents are too numerous and too nuanced to describe here. What's more, "L'Auberge Espagnole" should be enjoyed spontaneously and instinctively, just as Xavier enjoys his year away from the expectations of home. Klapisch has an uncanny knack for evoking the world traveler's intense, concentrated experience: the dislocation and excitement, the loneliness and thrilling sense of possibility. Watching as Xavier befriends his housemates, as he witnesses their internecine fights and small but profound paroxysms of mutual comprehension and pursues his own doomed romantic affair, the audience can almost see the gawky, awkward young man take on weight and substance. It's a sentimental education by way of MTV's "The Real World" by way of Benetton, a multi-culti "Euro pudding" (in Xavier's words) that is at once naive and worldly.

Although the plot hinges on Xavier's dueling relationships, as well as the romantic complications of his roommates, Klapisch uses the international scrum to explore themes of language and identity, how we speak language and it speaks us. In quick, punchy scenes he eavesdrops on arguments between speakers of Castilian and Catalan Spanish, a brief tutorial on when Walloons speak Flemish or French, a wine-fueled fusillade of national stereotypes (this last is delivered by the English brother of one of Xavier's roommates, an irritating lout who redeems himself with supreme self-sacrifice in the end). In one of the film's signature scenes, Xavier and his Walloon friend bond by listening to the West African singer Ali Farka Toure.

The film takes an exhilarating, optimistic view of the prospects for European -- and, by extension, global -- cooperation. But more than a political essay, Klapisch has made the most wistful valentine to travel since Bill Forsyth's "Local Hero." Like that film, "L'Auberge Espagnole" honors the journey, both literal and metaphysical, that sucks us into a vortex of intense, intimate connection, then spits us out alone -- our selves intact but irrevocably changed. "My life has always been a mess," Xavier tells the audience at one point, "complicated, pathetic, untidy, completely chaotic." Those very words could be used to describe the impossible world we live in, and isn't it grand?

L'Auberge Espagnole (116 minutes, in French and other languages with subtitles, at the Avalon and Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle) is rated R for language and sexual content.

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