“L’Auberge Espagnole” has been Englished as “Euro Pudding” (though the literal translation would be something like “The Spanish Hostel,” and in Gallic slang the phrase apparently means “free-for-all”), but the French “mélange” might be more descriptive both of the plot, about a French graduate student who shares a flat with a polyglot assortment of roommates in Barcelona, and of its style, which embraces a wide panoply of camera tricks–speeded-up sequences, split screens, careening pans, whiplash edits, abrupt inserts and so on–to spice up what’s essentially a fairly standard story of maturation and anti-provincialism. The end result is overly busy and too obviously pleased with its own cleverness. But while Cédric Klapisch’s previous feature, “When the Cat’s Away” (1996), was simpler, sweeter and more emotionally involving, in this case the stylistic excesses don’t prove fatal. “L’Auberge” is slight and overly eager to impress with its flourishes, but sufficiently brisk and colorful to prove satisfying nonetheless.
The central character is Xavier (Romain Duris), a rather stiff, self-absorbed fellow who’s assured of a position in a governmental ministry if he spends some time studying economics in Spain. After securing financial support from an exchange program named after Erasmus, he leaves his long-time girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou) behind in Paris and goes off to Barcelona, where he’s befriended at the airport by Jean-Michel (Xavier De Guillebon), an expatriate French doctor, and his new bride Anne-Sophie (Judith Godrèche) before securing a room in an apartment inhabited by a group of students of various nationalities: Soledad, a proud native girl (Christina Brondo); Wendy, a tidy British one (Kelly Reilly); Alessandro (Federico D’Anna), a with-it Italian dude; Tobias (Barnaby Metschurat), a slouchy German; and Lars (Christian Pagh), an owlish Dane. To their number Xavier eventually adds another, a Belgian lass named Isabelle (Cécile De France). What follows is a chain of incidents rather than a straight-line narrative. Xavier’s relationship with Martine sours after she makes a visit to the flat. He shows an interest in Isabelle, but she’s lesbian. He’s drawn into an affair with Anne-Sophie, whose husband encourages him to show her around the city. Meanwhile the household is turned upside down by the arrival of Wendy’s brother William (Kevin Bishop), an obnoxious, xenophobic sort who blurts out decidedly insulting observations, and of Lars’s former squeeze, who brings along a child she says is his. There’s an especially prolonged and involved comic set-piece when Wendy uncharacteristically takes up with a American guy just as her fiancé arrives unexpectedly and her pals must chip in to prevent him from discovering her infidelity. At the end of the year Xavier goes home a changed person–liberated and unwilling to fit himself into the stifling role he’d been preparing himself for.
What’s good about “L’Auberge Espagnole” is its loose, uninhibited tone–the way it bounces from point to point without bothering to connect all the dots, and its cheerfully amoral attitude, which seems utterly truthful in the context of contemporary western youth. It also takes some nice shots at bureaucratic flim-flammery, both in the government and the scholarship apparatus. Duris’s sad-sack countenance and laid-back style, which initially seems too reticent, gradually win one over, persuading us that he is indeed an innocent growing while abroad; his withdrawn personality also makes his occasional outbursts all the more amusing. The rest of the cast is fine, with Godrèche ethereally beautiful (and more than a trifle dim), De France suitably hard-edged, and the Reilly-Bishop duo periodically hilarious while successfully avoiding caricature; the others have their moments, but one may well regret that Tautou, of “Amélie” fame, has so small (and frankly unflattering) a role. Klapisch’s technical excesses can be rather precious and sometimes positively irritating, as can the almost incessant narration he puts into Xavier’s mouth (one begins to wonder whether directors are losing the ability actually to dramatize things rather than tell us about them), but for the most part Dominique Colin’s cinematography is expert, catching the mood of the Spanish city nicely–a notable accomplishment given that the picture was shot with an HD digital camera.
So while “L’Auberge Espagnole” ends up seeming more of a calculated trifle than “When the Cat’s Away,” and some of its virtuoso camera tricks might grate a bit, it remains an agreeable enough confection.