No spoilers; don't worry.

Je ne sais pas pourquoi le monde est devenu un tel bordel

2002 film written and directed by Cédric Klapisch. An auberge espagnole, in French, is a situation to which everyone must contribute something in order to make it what it is. A hotchpotch, melting pot, pot-luck scenario. More literally, and equally true in the case of the film, it is a Spanish hostel.

The first, and lead, character we meet is Xavier, played by Roman Duris. Blasé about his humdrum existence in grey Paris, he uses his father's contacts to almost-secure himself an administrative position in an office hidden somewhere in the darkest depths of French governmental bureaucracy. The only catch is that he needs to improve his knowledge of the Spanish language and current economic market if he is to qualify for the position. Cue Erasmus. Cue a lovely little scene where the dozens of necessary forms, papers, letters, files, signatures, documents, and Pièces d'Identité are layered over the screen until Xavier is almost completely submerged in paperwork. Ah, the EU in action.

After a sad farewell with his girlfriend, played by Audrey Tatou, and a not-so-sad farewell with his ageing hippie mother, Xavier jets off to Barcelona to spend a year studying at the university there. After a faltering first few weeks, he eventually manages to find an apartment where he can be himself, which is where the bulk of the film's action takes place.

The characters who play a part in Xavier's unusual coming-of-age tale:

  • Jean-Michel, played by Xavier de Guillebon, is the condescending brain surgeon who imposes himself upon Xavier from the moment his plane lands in Barcelona. He represents the faux-bourgeoisie and pretence which our hero is struggling so hard to leave behind. He does, however, make himself useful by providing Xavier with a sofa to sleep on before he has found his feet.
  • Anne-Sophie, played by Judith Godrèche, is the inexplicably beautiful new wife of Jean-Michel. She is frighteningly reserved, and not at all rock and roll, as she puts it. Insists on using the formal vous form of the second person singular for a ridiculously long time.
  • Martine is Xavier's Parisian girlfriend, played by Amélie star Audrey Tatou. That the film was largely sold on her star credentials is something of a swindle. Her role may be an important one, but she makes very few appearances on screen. Her character is barely developed at all.
  • Isabelle (Cécile de France) is the Belgian girl, who is studying economics alongside Xavier. The first hint we get of a potential new love interest for Xav. I'm not going to tell you what happens.
  • Wendy, portrayed by Kelly Reilly is the red-headed English rose who plays mother to the group of slobs she lives with. She has a chaotic sex life full of humorous twists and turns.
  • William, Wendy's annoying, lager-swigging little brother comes to stay in the apartment for a couple of weeks, much to everyone's annoyance. Few characters in films have made me cringe so much, or feel so apologetic for my Britishness. When watching this film in the company of a German and two Frenchmen, I felt dreadfully ashamed. He slurs insulting stereotypes left, right, and centre, yet fails to see that he himself is a shining example of one. At one point, shows himself to be a good bean, even though it means sacrificing his macho dignity. Marvellously acted by Kevin Bishop.
  • Soleded, the token Spanish girl, is played by Cristina Brondo. Terribly under-developed character. All we really know about her is that she is going out with Lars.
  • Lars is the Dane who speaks good French. At any opportunity, he will proudly declare "J'ai passé l'année dernière à Paris". Gets a nasty surprise half-way through the film, but copes well. Played by Christian Pagh.
  • Alessandro is the lanky, goofy Italian played by Federico d'Anna. Another house-mate about whom we learn very little. It seems he's mostly there to provide light relief. Even if he doesn't speak much, his dopey figure lumbering across the screen adds humour.
  • Tobias, the studious German who gets so much abuse from the rampant William, is played by Barnaby Metschurat. Another minor character, we get the impression he is just there to fill up the group-shots and add another nationality to the melting pot. Does no harm.

As is to be expected when you throw six exchange students into an apartment together, there is plenty of binkybonky. Yet this film makes an earnest effort to be more than a run-of-the-mill post-teen comedy. Above all, it is the story of a man coming to understand what he wants, what he needs, and what he recieves from life. Three quite different notions. His experience in Barcelona gives him the guts to prioritise the first and second over the last. Klapisch also takes the opportunity to paint a picture of the European Union at the beginning of the twenty-first century. His view is rather similar to mine. It is at once a paper-guzzling, faceless monster and a beautiful notion. It is satisfying to see moments when The European Dream is realised, such as in this crumbling apartment where countless languages are spoken in countless different combinations, and where that doesn't matter a fig, because the only important thing is mutual understanding. So there. The director says that he based this film on two of his real-life experiences, and that the majority of the unlikely scenarios are in fact based in reality. Firstly, he spent time visiting his sister while she was studying as an Erasmus student in Barcelona. The second influence was the two years he spent in New York, which taught him how it was to live as a foreigner in a country where you are neither a local, nor on holiday.

Another interesting snippet from Cedric Klapisch: "C'est vraiment un film d'apprentissage comme on pouvait parler de roman d'apprentissage ou d'initiation.(..)Dans le film il y a souvent un téléphone portable qui sonne, une conversation en coupe une autre, on passe d'une langue à une autre, d'une personne à une autre, d'un univers à un autre. On switche, on zappe consatamment. Ce qu'apprend le personnage de Xavier, c'est que ce n'est pas forcément négatif."
Or, "It really is a film made by people who are still learning the art, like a first novel. ... You'll often hear a mobile phone ringing, or have one conversation interrupted by another. We'll switch from one language to another, from one actor to another, from one world to another. We're constantly flashing, cutting, switching around. Xavier learns that this is not necessarily a bad thing."

What the critics have said:

  • Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly: “Director Cedric Klapisch lets Xavier's year abroad unfold with the right wandering touch of pleasure, nostalgia and wistful exploration.”
  • David Denby, The New Yorker: “a love letter to the erotic pleasure of Barcelona”
  • Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian: "Cédric Klapisch directed the much-admired When the Cat's Away, but this metropolitan comedy doesn't strike quite the same successful note."

All French translations by me. Sources: the film itself, my eight months and counting in a very similar situation in Evreux, , , , ,

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