Free-for-all

A multicultural melange

France and Spain may not be able to agree on much — Iraq was only the latest and most visible tiff — but if all their moments of synchronicity were as pleasantly realized as L'Auberge Espagnole, they should definitely try seeing eye-to-eye more often.

A slight but oddly satisfying movie about everything and nothing, L'Auberge Espagnole is an international co-production in the truest sense. Financed partially by Spanish money, shot almost entirely in Barcelona, featuring an appealing ensemble cast from a variety of European Union countries and directed by the talented French filmmaker Cedric Klapisch (When the Cat's Away) — the film showcases the best of many worlds. My nearly nonexistent French suggested the movie's title might be a recipe for eggplant, but it's actually a difficult-to-translate bit of slang indicating both a sort of multicultural melange and a total free-for-all. The film's narrator describes the term as "Euro pudding." "You get out of it exactly what you put in."

The free-for-all aspect of the title also pretty much sums up how the movie itself is structured. It's a mess, but a beautiful mess. And one that seems to thrive on unruly energy. The more chaotic the movie becomes, the more engaging it is.

L'Auberge Espagnole is a film of loose ends, seemingly random vignettes and curious little stops and starts that can seem terribly annoying at first, but then quickly grow on you. The movie even opens with a false start, one of the more conspicuous in recent memory — a plane lifting off into the wild blue, only to be turned into an image frozen in mid-flight and then re-wound. An off-screen voice explains, cheerfully informing us that "This is not a movie about taking off."

Then again, maybe it is, but you'll have to decide for yourself at the movie's conclusion — some 116 minutes later. In the meantime, the film bubbles away in its sweet, stuttering way. It fills our eyes and ears with odds and ends; clever, almost glib manipulations of images and sounds; and with all sorts of eccentric narrative detours. The movie has an easily distracted flow, a bit like a slightly unfocused conversation where a thought is rarely finished. But the apparent lack of focus is intentionally misleading.

What the movie really seems to want to communicate is a multitude of voices, a sense of listening to stories within stories — so much so that L'Auberge Espagnole often seems a bit like a laid-back, Gallic One Hundred and One Nights. In fact, during the film's first 15 minutes or so, it's nearly impossible to tell when the "real" story starts or where it's going.

Klapisch tinkers with the pieces of his movie and teases us with a seemingly endless series of asides and narrative non sequiturs before finally getting down to something approximating business. The path we finally settle into belongs to a young Parisian named Xavier (Roman Duris). He is a college student leaving home for the first time, on his way to Spain for a yearlong exchange program at the University of Barcelona.

As his name suggests, Xavier is nothing if not an X factor. He's a variable, an unknown integer, a sponge waiting to soak up the experiences that life (and the movie) have in store for him. Xavier's our narrator, the film's primary voice and our guide into its world. But we're deliberately not given much information about him. We know he's majoring in economics, lives at home with his hippie-ish mom, has a cute girlfriend (the ubiquitous and beatific Audrey Tautou), is given to playing air guitar and will likely end up working a boring desk job back in Paris when he returns. Other than that, though, he's a blank slate waiting to be written upon.

The movie begins in earnest — although it's tricky applying an adjective like "earnest" to a film as flighty as this one — when that non-starter of an opening scene appears again. That plane frozen in mid-flight takes off again, this time successfully, carrying with it a tearful Xavier, distraught at the idea of being separated from his pretty girlfriend (and, apparently, everything else that's familiar).

Quickly discovering Barcelona to be a "seriously wild" but unexpectedly expensive city, Xavier finds he has no choice but to cut costs by cramming himself into a small apartment shared by a small army of other exchange students. Apartment life opens up a whole new, multicultural world to Xavier, a global stew composed of Italian, English, German, Danish, Belgian and even Spanish ingredients (with each roomie turning out to be an engaging oddball in his or her own right). Daily life in the shared apartment is a typically bizarre mix of communal and capitalist urges, of the mundane and the hysterical. The movie takes it all in, having a good time with the ridiculously petty, but frequently funny, ways in which young roommates interact and delegate responsibilities pretty much anywhere in the world.

As good a job as the movie does of capturing the feeling of being young and a little crazy and experiencing the world for the first time, L'Auberge Espagnole is even better at giving us a sense of Barcelona itself. We see the city through Xavier's eyes, first as something fundamentally new and strange and terribly exciting, and then as something even more rewarding in its acquired familiarity. We're taken through the famous areas as well as the lesser-known neighborhoods, the alleys and rooftops and apartment buildings — not excluding some of those astonishing Gaudi constructions — and it all works its way under our skin. The cumulative effect is not unlike a love letter to the city of Barcelona, in some ways as poignant and perfectly put together as those cinematic poems to Paris dashed off by Truffaut and Godard's gang all those many years ago.

The story drifts along in its own peculiar way, with characters and story elements disappearing only to re-emerge at the most unlikely moment. The editing is elliptical by design, almost to the point of absurdity, with some of the film's most telling moments occurring off-screen. A screaming match between two roommates is immediately followed by a shot of the same pair post-argument, giggling and hugging. And when Xavier's girlfriend comes to visit, and his voice-over narration tells us, "It felt like we spent more time saying goodbye than being together," it's literally true, at least for us. The movie shows us the couple's awkward hello, then immediately cuts away to their extended farewell at the airport.

The editing strategy is a little coy, but simple and effective. When the movie refuses to explicitly show us a critical moment but still manages to tell us everything we need to know, the whole thing inevitably takes on an additional layer of meaning — that of a gently subversive joke.

The roommates have their emotional ups and downs, drift in and out of affairs, explore, make mistakes and occasionally even get some work done (i.e., study), just like in real life. It all becomes increasingly untidy and complicated, until, by the last half hour or so, everyone's either a nervous wreck, hallucinating or sprawled out on the couch in a semi-comatose state, watching a buffoonish friend doing an imitation of flies copulating. "Nature," the buffoon leers, "crazy, isn't it?"

Even the buffoons in Kapisch's movie turn out to be thoroughly human, though. As with the films of great humanist directors like Satyajit Ray or Jean Renoir, you'd be hard pressed to come across an actual villain in L'Auberge Espagnole, and in the final analysis, there's something endearing about even the jerks. The method and mindset inevitably recall not just Ray and Renoir, but the agitated, yet life-affirming social observations of UK filmmaker Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies). Like Leigh, Klapisch just chooses a place and then plays around with some of the curious human groupings inhabiting that place, all while embracing the fact that clouds and silver linings are simply facts of life that go hand in hand.

It all ends in a mad rush of sitcom-ish slapstick and a game of sexual musical chairs that sends us off into the night smiling, with a little old fashioned nudge-nudge, wink-wink. You can't ignore the sitcom aspects of L'Auberge Espagnole, but don't say it like it's such a bad thing. After all, what does this odd, jittery little movie most resemble if not a younger, artsier, less jaded version of Seinfeld in Spain? L'Auberge Espagnole does a great job capturing the sexy aimlessness, endless possibilities and abrupt detours of youth, but ultimately it's just an epic about nothing.

Film Critic Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 157.

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