The exquisitely charming French film L'Auberge Espagnole marks director Cedric Klapisch's return to the hipster humanism he mined so beautifully in 1997's When the Cat's Away. Like that earlier film, L'Auberge Espagnole is a revisionist coming-of-age story in which personal growth is never epic or underscored but a subtle shift of perspective.
When Xavier (Romain Duris) is advised by a bigwig friend of his father's that he can land a fancy job in Paris' ruling class if he studies the "Spanish economy," Xavier takes those two words as oracle whispered from a deity's lips. He rushes off to enroll in graduate school at the University of Barcelona, a "Euro pudding" of students hailing from every nation in an increasingly globalist Europe.
In a film that emphasizes the real world difficulty of transitions, passageways stand in for spiritual and emotional journeys. When Xavier walks down the runway to the plane waiting to whisk him away to Barcelona, his face collapses in tears as he reluctantly leaves behind girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou) and his hippie mother.
But time and fresh surroundings change everything. In Barcelona, Xavier is soon distracted by pretty fellow Frenchwoman Anne-Sophie (Judith Godreche) and his engaging, colorful roommates who hail from every corner of the continent. Xavier's connection to Martine is soon amputated as cozy coupledom is traded for membership in this spirited new clan.
L'Auberge Espagnole begins frantically with an addled Xavier scrolling through the forms he needs for college registration or strolling furiously through a rat's maze of hallways. In his Paris scenes, Klapisch beautifully conveys the bone-deep sensations of modern life -- the throbbing rhythm of computer blips, intercom voices, ambition, movement and change -- that has become indistinguishable from one's own pulse.
That hypertext mania settles down when Xavier moves from France -- where raw ambition defines his every move -- to Barcelona, where he begins to realize how much he has been missing in the mad rush to get somewhere.
In Barcelona, life slows down to a sensual amble as Xavier embraces the city's cosmopolitan vibe. In a new context, Xavier is now a citizen of the Present instead of groping for some terminally out-of-reach Future.
Xavier's senses are newly awakened by the heat- and music-spiked intensity of the city. There is a hilarious scene in which his captivating lesbian roommate coaches him on how to truly appreciate a woman. In another scene, Xavier surveys the city's glorious, sun-drenched skyline graced by architect Antonio Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia church, which conveys the bewitching effect of a new environment.
But Klapisch suggests Xavier's embrace of Barcelona also has a dark side. Xavier blends so completely with the city and his six roommates he suffers a nervous breakdown. He hallucinates historical figures and rushes to a local hospital for a CAT scan. Klapisch hints that in the affectionate, warm embrace of this quirky cultural stew, Xavier loses sight of himself.
At multiple points in the film, Xavier looks at a black-and-white snapshot of his boy-self and remembers his childhood desire to be a writer. That urge becomes the heartbeat that keeps pounding within Xavier, despite his distracted effort to pursue a dust-dry career in economics. Klapisch's own insistently sweet message is that despite shifts of locale, loves and points of view, it is important to remember that inner voice and not lose sight of what truly satisfies us.
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