- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2003

After seeing “L’Auberge Espagnole,” I got to wondering: What has Europe’s problem been for the past, oh, 500 years?

I mean, why all the fighting?

The answer may be found in the fridge: an environmental hazard belonging to seven grad students from all over Europe, living in a slovenly group house.

Like MTV’s “The Real World,” the long-running reality series from which French writer-director Cedric Klapisch basically derived his formula, “L’Auberge” intimately peeps into the lives of an emotionally charged bunch of young adults moving in tight quarters.

Unlike “The Real World,” the movie is moderately paced and features lots of neo-New Wave tricks: sped-up camera shots, multiple split screens and hallucination sequences — a bit like a Francois Truffaut film on acid.

For Mr. Klapisch, the house, in uberhip Barcelona, becomes a microcosmic version of greater Europe. On a larger scale, he suggests, the Continent’s sickness is elbow-throwing nationalism.

Or, at the very least, the kind of nationalism that encourages people to keep house like pigs.

In literal French, “L’Auberge Espagnole” means “the Spanish Inn.” According to press notes, however, in the French vernacular it means something along the lines of a cultural stew. At one point in the movie, it’s rendered “Euro pudding.”

Whatever the translation, it is Europe’s uncertain future as an integrated superstate that’s foremost in Mr. Klapisch’s noggin, and it’s a good thing he kept his craft light and personal. Anything weightier would have been intolerable.

Indeed, the one time Mr. Klapisch sees fit to editorialize — at the movie’s too-tidy ending — it nearly ruins the whole thing.

At the center of this pudding is Xavier (Romain Duris), a prickly 25-year-old Parisian who enrolls in Erasmus — a real-life exchange program named for the 16th-century Dutch philosopher — to study economics. He is assured by a friend of his father’s that he’ll find a job within the burgeoning European Union bureaucracy if he learns Spanish and earns a master’s degree.

It’s not exactly a dream career for Xavier, a wannabe writer, but the program promises to kill a year and give him some distance from a nagging mother, not to mention a fussy girlfriend (Audrey Tautou) he quickly realizes he doesn’t miss.

After temporarily boarding with an expatriate French couple (Xavier De Guillebon and Judith Godreche) whom he met on his flight to Barcelona — a connection that seems like an excuse for a dubious romance later in the movie — he finds a room at the grad-student flophouse.

Some of Mr. Klapisch’s ethnic stereotypes are pretty threadbare: The German is anal-retentive; the Briton is uptight and petulantly does all the cleaning; the Italian looks like a fashion model. A couple of others — a Spaniard and a Dane — don’t have much life to them, while a Belgian plays the token homosexual, a “Real World” must.

Good. Everyone’s present and accounted for; now, what did they all learn from each other?

Where Mr. Klapisch fails with “L’Auberge” is that he set out to make his little Europe look like a zesty salad, but it turns out to be more of … a pudding.

The disparate bunch may cover most of Europe’s bases, but at the end of the day, they’re not that much different from each other. Not much different from typical American elite twentysomethings: a tad self-obsessed, high-achieving, more than a little spoiled, not quite as smart as they fancy themselves.

Is this what we can expect from the United States of Europe? A polyglot America?

Would that the world could be so lucky.

If Mr. Klapisch wanted to find tension in his beloved, muddled Europa, he would have done better by setting his tale in a poor Muslim neighborhood on the outskirts of Paris. Or he could have thrown a Jew into his mix and explored the Continent’s newfound anti-Semitism.

Europe’s coming union wouldn’t look so sunny then, would it?

**

TITLE: “L’Auberge Espagnole,” in French and Spanish with English subtitles

RATING: R (Strong sexuality; brief nudity; profanity)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Cedric Klapisch. Produced by Bruno Levy. Cinematography by Dominique Colin.

RUNNING TIME: 116 minutes.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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