The Manhattan-centric friends of Friends would probably hate the Euro-diverse friends in the light, likable French import, L'Auberge Espagnole.
Cedric Klapisch's earlier features include the delightful When the Cat's Away, one of the great comedies about how lives overlap and intersect in the modern city, and Family Resemblances, an agile comedy of family life told within the confines of a restaurant. With L'Auberge Espagnole (literally, "The Spanish Inn," a slang phrase for a houseful of unlikely cultural clashes), the 41-year-old French filmmaker works with material of such sitcom-y promise that the characters even remark on it at one point.
Still, it's unlikely that all but the best directors can avoid the standard conflicts that emerge when eight dissimilar people are stuck under one roof. For instance, while Klapisch is no Robert Altman, Altman has never demonstrated a particular interest in coming-of-age stories.
Xavier (Romain Duris, a Klapisch regular) is a 25-year-old economics student who leaves his life and girlfriend (a sullen Audrey Tautou) behind in Paris to study for a year in Barcelona through an intra-European exchange program. His father's pulling strings, encouraging him to study economics and learn Spanish, which would make him an ideal Eurocrat deep in the bowels of the European Union bureaucracy.
Xavier, to note again, is 25. After a few false starts, he finds himself with seven roommates in one bustling household, within his own virtual E.U., where every language is spoken and few emotions are held in reserve. One of the delicious felicities of L'Auberge Espagnole, once entitled "Euro Pudding," is its effortless cosmopolitanism. Euro Pudding would have been too much of an in-joke; it's a derisive bit of jargon for a film with financiers of many nations and thus no identity. Klapisch himself has a walk-on in one street scene, with the self-deprecating "What a f--ing mess!" being his most memorable line.
Even when characters are underdeveloped and Dominique Colin's sometimes-muddy shot-on-video images diminish the brilliant blues of the sea and sky and mosaics of the Catalan capital, languages and cultures jostle fruitfully. Even noting its limitations while watching it with a notably white-haired audience, I was pleased. There are only a handful of films I know that mess with language and the overlap of nationalities so playfully, most notably Wim Wenders' 1977 thriller The American Friend (newly on video), which took as its subtext the Americanization of European culture and movies.
Duris, who has also played a winsome Gallic charmer in movies like Tony Gatlif's Gadjo Dilo, is Klapisch's Everyboy. With his hair cut short, unlike his goateed and maned hipster in When the Cat's Away, Duris is cute. But when his character is frustrated, he manages to look like an utter doofus -- which is, of course, part of his charm. While his roommates -- an English woman; a Belgian lesbian; Italian, German, and Danish men and a single Catalan woman -- are indicated with swift comic strokes, the women in Xavier's life are less well-drawn. Audrey Tautou continues to play surly, sullen variations on her charming turn as Amelie. As Anne-Sophie, a young, neglected wife whom Xavier beds, the estimable Judith Godreche, playing a simple, unthoughtful woman, has little to do but look stricken or gratefully orgasmic. (There is one sustained comic and erotic frisson, when the husband returns home and Xavier wants to flee; all Anne-Sophie wants is to continue to run her hands along Xavier's hands, his arms, his body. It's a very funny scene.
Age 25 is probably the oldest characters are allowed to be in movies and still ask themselves such questions about identity and the meaning of life. Some grown-ups might not give a merde about Xavier's inner struggles about kisses, longing, how we read city streets and, in general, his emerging worldview. But important questions get tossed around, even if some are underlined with all the dramatic subtlety of a soccer ball being booted straight up in the air: Klapisch wrote the script quickly when a since-finished heist movie fell through. The video production allowed for a lower budget, but it also allows for a spontaneity and briskness that keeps the cliches, both old and new, from wearying. Still, the charm of its notebook form pales besides Godard's snapshots of French youth in the 1960s, particularly in Masculin-Feminine. Charm is not beauty; observation is not literature.
After spending a couple of weeks surveying Criterion's deluxe DVD edition of Francois Truffaut's Antoine Doinel films (notably The 400 Blows, Antoine and Colette and Bed and Board), it's shocking to realize how difficult it is to make lasting romances. (Let us speak only of movies, not of life.) Equally shocking is how simple the means can be to pull it off. There is a busy range of devices in L'Auberge, many of which are drawn from its video origins, and sometimes they weaken the movie's genuine achievements. When you call a movie like L'Auberge Espagnole a tasty souffl & eacute;, you are also saying that it is quickly digested as the next meal approaches. Or that it goes down as easily as the next episode of Friends, the one about the French guy who doesn't realize just how lucky, lucky, lucky he is.