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L’auberge espagnole is a typical coming-of-age movie. Young man moves to a different country, makes friends, and finds himself. You already know how it’s going to end. But the ending of this French comedy is not the focus; it’s the lessons learned and friendships formed along the way.
Xavier is a young Parisian of indeterminate age—as a college student he could be in his early 20’s, but looks older—who decides to study abroad in Barcelona, Spain for a year. His goal is to learn Spanish so he can get a corporate job handpicked for him by a friend of his father’s when he returns to France. His mother and girlfriend are not happy to see him leave, and in the beginning Xavier seems ambivalent about the whole idea himself. Upon moving into the Spanish apartment of the title, the movie really takes off. Xavier’s relationships with the people he meets in Barcelona—his many international flatmates and friends—propel the movie. He learns to speak Spanish and Catalan, debate questions of identity and culture with other students, and develops friendships with people he’d never been exposed to before. His character, and his worldview, blossom.
Although he spends a lot of time exploring Spain’s beaches and bars, it’s not all fun, games and recreational marijuana for Xavier. Growing up is hard. We follow along as Xavier suffers from insomniac hallucinations and becomes convinced he’s going insane. Despite it all, though, he seems so at home in his new, relaxed personality and lifestyle that we know that as soon as the time comes to return to his tidy French life and corporate job, conflict is inevitable.
This movie was a hit in France and internationally, but it’s not a masterpiece. The story feels patchwork at times. Plotlines involving different roommates begin intriguingly and are never resolved. The movie’s high point is a comedic side story about the British roommate Wendy, her boyfriend, her lover, and her brother, in which Xavier is only peripherally involved. For a movie made in 2002, there seem to be more than a few anachronisms. Xavier’s cell phone is enormous, and he and many others spend an inordinate amount of time on public payphones. A big deal is made of Xavier’s leaving home, abandoning girlfriend and family and being out of contact for an entire year, but he’s only going from Paris to Barcelona. Several characters react with incredulity and disdain on finding out another character is gay, displaying an attitude at odds with the image of the young, liberal, 21st century international student. While the movie goes out of its way to present different characters of different nationalities, there is only one African character and Middle Easterners and East Asians are conspicuously absent.
Despite these flaws, L’auberge espagnole is charming and watchable. It holds the viewer’s attention for all of its 122 minutes and then some. It will appeal to viewers who have lived abroad. And it’s funny. Jokes range from a visual gag about paperwork and bureaucracy, to puns involving curse words in different languages. The more the viewer knows about the multiple languages and cultures presented in the movie, the more the subtler jokes and references will make sense. At the same time, the film is aware of the danger of peddling in stereotypes, and makes light of the idea by personifying all its European cliches through one supremely obnoxious character.
L’auberge espagnole is not a bilingual movie—it’s polyglot. We hear French, Spanish, Catalan, English, and other languages spoken by people of different nationalities and different accents. Don’t succumb to the temptation to see this movie dubbed. Watch it in the original French with the subtitles of your choosing. The “original French” will be half Spanish with a smattering of English mixed in, anyway.
The true star of this movie is Erasmus, the study abroad program in which Xavier participates. Study abroad is presented as a liberating, carefree, and chaotic way to discover one’s true self. Larger questions of identity, set against the politics of the European Union, invite the viewer to think. This multilingual movie will appeal to language learners, international students and armchair travelers.
Review: L’auberge espagnole (2002). Written and directed by Cédric Klapisch. Stars Roman Duris, Judith Godrèche, Cécile de France, Kelly Reilly, Audrey Tautou, Cristina Brondo, Federico D’Anna, Barnaby Metschurat, Christian Pagh, and Kevin Bishop.
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