Xavier (Romain Duris) is headed for a business career, courtesy of his absent father’s connections. Envisions his future, he’s feeling just a little intimidated and anxious. Elevators, desks, suits. It all looks a little dreary.
To postpone what seems inevitable, Xavier takes a risk, leaving Paris, his “hippie” mother (her affection for tofu annoys Xavier), and his adorable girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou) for a year in Barcelona, via the university exchange program Erasmus. At the airport, Martine weeps, missing him before he even begins to walk away. He plays the man, reassuring her that all will be well, that they’ll be back together soon. And then, as he heads to the plane, alone in the walkway, Xavier appears in mobile close-up, tears welling in his eyes. Perhaps this boy has something going for him besides a sweet face and a sometimes pained self-consciousness.
As Xavier narrates his story in Cédric Klapisch’s L’Auberge Espagnole, he reveals that, like many 24-year-olds, he has a jumble of ideas in his head. Some are mundane (how to please his girlfriend, how to escape his mother); others are, indicated by speedy time-lapsing (denoting traffic, crowds, bureaucracy), simultaneous-action split screens, and a clever tendency to make literal (or very visible) emotional responses (a pile-on of forms he needs to fill out for the excursion cutely crowds characters out of the frame). Still, he’s never too sure of himself, rather imagining that his year studying economics at the University of Barcelona will lead him to a revelation, a reason for his resistance to the life he’s not quite chosen.
The moment he exits the plane in Spain, Xavier meets a French neurologist Jean-Michel (Xavier de Guillobon) who’s working at the hospital in town; because the film is premised on things working out, the doctor and his beautiful but exceptionally dim wife (Judith Godrèche) invite him to stay with them while he looks for a place to live. Each morning he wakes on the couch, his face poofy as he agrees to whatever Jean-Michel asks him to do, mostly look after Anne-Sophie who hasn’t yet picked up the language and is a afraid to leave the apartment. While this arrangement means decent food and a partner for exploring the spectacular Gaudí pavilions, Xavier knows he must find a bedroom of his own, and so, he answers an ad looking for a roommate.
This turn of events provides the place and circumstance that grants the film its title (in one meaning, it becomes “Europudding,” in another, “free-for-all”). Before you can say The Real World, Xavier’s been accepted by six multi-national roomies — Italian Allessandro (Federico D’Anna), Danish Lars (Christian Pagh), German Tobias (Barnaby Metschurat), Soledad (Cristina Brondo), and British Wendy (Kelly Reilly). In this cluttered, haphazard space, where much of the film’s action occurs, he finds a sense of himself in relation to others, in particular others who are not Martine (their early, swoony phone calls grant the roommates endless ammunition for good-natured ridicule: “Je t’aime, mon amour!”). As it turns out, the thing that Xavier liked best about her was her tendency to reflect him, to make him look and feel good.
So, Xavier is a selfish boy. This makes him more ordinary than anything else, a product of his time and place, as well as his station. He will come to understand himself in another context, to appreciate that his desires are not all that matter. He will come of age, as they say, under the watchful eye of a high-def video camera. The apparatus grants the film a certain whimsy and keen sensitivity to place, both reminiscent of Klapisch’s When the Cat’s Away. Even when Xavier behaves poorly, then pouts when there’s a price to pay, you never feel he’s at risk, exactly.
So, he learns to “appreciate” a woman from his Belgian roommate Isabelle (Cécile De France, who won a César for Best Newcomer), then embarks on a lazy affair with Anne-Sophie, because she’s lovely and yearning, not because he actually thinks much of her. And it’s all sort of okay, not egregious, because Jean-Michel doesn’t pay enough attention to her. The guys argue when the truth comes out. But that doesn’t mean Jean-Michel and Anne-Sophie won’t come to Xavier’s going away party at film’s end. Sweet.
Xavier’s does endure a couple of jolts. For one thing, he realizes soon that he will never win the heart of Isabelle because she is a lesbian. She offers him solace (“I wish you were a woman”), and he laughs at the cosmic glitch that seems to be his experience at the moment: “The world is badly made.”
It’s a clever line, but the world is actually quite fine in L’Auberge Espagnole, whose one-from-every-food-group approach leads to sketches more than characters, identified by cultural quirks, rather like Xavier sees the world. Soon he meets a much more egregious version of such thinking, in Wendy’s younger brother William (Kevin Bishop), who makes fun of each roomie’s accent, and makes Hitler jokes at Tobias, thinking his worldview is the one everyone shares, baffled when others are offended. Xavier’s self-involvement is subtler (though he does through a period of believing he’s seeing Erasmus, the historical figure, and visits Jean-Michel for a neurological exam, not even thinking that the man might know about and resent the affair).
But if Xavier remains annoyingly egocentric, the film is, on another and more remarkable level, about exactly that. It points out associations between commercial and cultural globalizations, but celebrates rather than laments the loss of fixed identities.