With a running time of almost two hours, L’Auberge Espagnole
(the title is slang for a "potluck party") veers between the interminable and the insufferable, with occasional sidetracks down the cobbled alleyways of Barcelona for drunken revelry and precious Catalan comedy of the sort you’d expect from a director who idolizes François Truffaut but doesn’t seem to have much grasp of how to go about replicating his countryman’s keen feel for the wayward subtleties of teens on the make. A tremendous hit in its native France (it was nominated for six Césars and received one), this meandering story of seven university students from various Euro countries who share a flat in Barcelona during a year of study abroad has the same unfocused, try-anything panache of its pan-European subjects, who, as you might expect, spend their days roaming the city, drinking, fighting, and falling in and out of love with the regularity of Swiss clockwork. That’s surely intentional on Klapisch’s part; he inserts little editing tricks throughout – speeded-up sequences, odd cuts and freezes – that mirror the half-formed, scattershot personalities of his subjects. The attention of a student abroad is tempted by as many shiny, pretty things as a newborn, the film seems to say, except instead of dangling ducky mobiles, these babes are drawn to illicit affairs and spontaneous gratification. Good for them, creepingly dull for us. Klapisch’s onscreen alter ego is Xavier (Duris), a gawky French economics student who wanders through the film wearing the befuddled expression of a fellow who’s just walked in on his parents in flagrante delicto. Not surprisingly, he arrives in Barcelona a naif and returns home a worldly wiseguy with a fistful of euros and a yen to break it off with his long-distance girlfriend Martine (the winsome Tautou of Amélie
fame). He ends up cheating on her with the needy wife of a French neurologist after his Belgian lesbian flatmate (De France) gives him a lesson in how to successfully please a woman. With the saucy tomboy air (and hair) of Sporty Spice, she tells him "all women are sluts in their hearts" and need a man who can dominate them sexually. This sort of thing may play in the EU, but it’s likely to stick you with a restraining order in the States these days. Most of the characters are annoyingly rough shades of real post-teen, a generic fondue pot of obvious tics and tirades, and it’s not until three-quarters of the way through that something genuinely interesting happens. That something is the arrival of Kevin Bishop’s character William, brother to fastidious Brit flatmate Wendy (Reilly); he’s the quintessential ugly yob, sporting soccer shirts and bad trainers and constantly making callous and unthinking fun of everyone’s accent. The film’s best sequence has him comically essaying Adolph Hitler for Metschurat’s German student, who then storms off to demand the little hooligan’s ouster. The film is speckled with brief moments of genuine, real-world crudities like that, but they’re so few and far between that you’re likely to doze off waiting for the next one. Tautou fans, too, will find this semisweet confection a lackluster affair, as the gamine actress has less screen time than anyone else. Like the pan-European sociological experiment it describes, L’Auberge Espagnole
(they call it "Spanish Pudding" in the subtitles) is a dodgy, hit-or-miss affair that never quiet seems to gel: too many lumpy bits, and not enough crème.