This is not an Audrey Tautou picture, though she is in it. L’Auberge Espagnole is an ensemble film and Tautou is not even a part of the ensemble. I say this not to downgrade the film but to prevent disappointment in case anyone thinks this is another Amelie. And it certainly isn’t.
L’Auberge Espagnole does have its merits. Writer/director Cedric Klapisch is being hailed in some quarters as the “new Truffaut” (as in the playfully obvious Truffaut of Don’t Shoot the Piano Player). In other words, Klapisch’s film resembles in some ways the earlier works of the French New Wave, and also the British Invasion movies, themselves Anglicized outgrowths of the New Wave. In fact, if I had to compare L’Auberge Espagnole with any single film, it would be Richard Lester’s The Knack … and How to Get It.
But much time has passed since 1965, and what Klapisch has ended up with is The Knack by way of Reality Bites, a season of Friends and, more than anything, MTV’s The Real World. That sounds more ominous than it is: L’Auberge Espagnole is less like The Real World than it is what the MTV staple might be like if the characters were actually interesting.
The setup is pretty much the same: a cross section of 20-somethings living in one apartment. The main difference — apart from the movie being scripted and Klapisch eschewing the faux cinema verite style — is that the story is about exchange students in multicultural Europe who mostly don’t share a common language. The film’s trailer makes this last issue look like more of an issue than it actually is.
L’Auberge Espagnole is light and generally as insubstantial as the French bedroom farce it keeps threatening to turn into (it’s telling that the film’s funniest moment is pure bedroom farce of a kind that’s being knocking around for a hundred years). But Klapisch, at heart a farceur, uses the form subtly, to make a point.
The moment in question — where the roommates try to prevent the English girl’s just-arrived boyfriend from discovering her in bed with a much disliked (of course) American — is played for laughs and decked out in all the flashy New Wave style Klipsch can muster. And yet the event is ultimately a fairly serious statement on the solidarity of this little multicultural community (while also serving to make the girl’s obnoxious brother more likable.)
The whole vignette is good-natured and filled with the joy of discovery and the possibilities of life — and on that level, L’Auberge Espagnole scores nicely. It fumbles a bit in the area of Klapisch’s New Wave style, however. The director has got the light, bittersweet tone of his source films down, but their physical style eludes him. It’s merely grafted on, neither functional nor really even part of the film.
There’s always a sense of Klapisch slapping on some clever effect — fast motion, split screen, jump cut — for no reason other than that the source films used it. The one exception is the scene where the English girl throws her visiting brother out, then turns around and takes him back in. Klapisch reduces this to a minimalist effect by jump-cutting from the brother’s departure to the two of them in a reconciling hug. That is the language of New Wave filmmaking. Just manipulating the image because you can is not.
However, this seems more minor annoyance than significant failure since the movie is overall sufficiently engaging. L’Auberge Espagnole is apt, however, to leave American viewers with a depressing sense of cultural inferiority when these characters are weighed against the classless, clueless, horny drunks that populate our own equivalents of Klapisch’s film.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke