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L’Auberge Espagnole (The Spanish Apartment, 2002) (French/English/Spanish) by Cédric Klapisch

Reviewed by Volker Poelzl
Living Abroad Contributing Editor

L’Auberge Espagnole” is a funny and very realistic depiction of the lives of a group of exchange students from all over Europe, who study in Barcelona and live in the same shared apartment. I immediately noticed that no director could have made this movie without personal experience to draw from. The scenes, the dialogues, and the sets are just too realistic to have been made up. From the messy fridge to arguments over who’s next to clean the bathroom, to cultural clashes between the students, C�dric Klapisch pays close attention to detail in order to bring the movie to life. The story is, in fact, based on the director’s personal experience, when he studied film in New York and later, when he visited his sister, who was studying in Barcelona and lived with housemates from various countries.

The opening of the movie introduces us to the French world of finance aspired to by Xavier (Romain Duris), a Parisian grad student in economics. The camera leads us high-speed through the endless corridors inside the French Ministry of the Economy, Finance and Industry, where Xavier goes to look for work. After he is promised a lucrative government job, provided he has knowledge of the Spanish economy and knows how to speak French, Xavier decides to apply for a year-long student exchange in Spain to acquire the skills necessary for the job. His possessive mother and his jealous girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou, the leading actress in “Amelie”) do not make it easy for Xavier to leave Paris, but he remains committed to his plan and finally takes a plane to Barcelona.

On his way from the Barcelona airport to the city center we hear Xavier’s narration about his new life: “When you first arrive in a city, nothing makes sense. Everything is unknown, virgin. After you’ve lived here, walked these streets, you’ll know them inside out. You’ll know these people. Once you’ve lived here, crossed this street ten, twenty, one-thousand times, it’ll belong to you, because you’ve lived there. That was about to happen to me, but I didn’t know it yet.”

But a growing familiarity with Barcelona is not the only thing that happens to Xavier during his one-year stay. He soon moves into an international household with six other foreign exchange students, and the slightly uptight Xavier begins to experience life in new and unexpected ways. As he gets to know the diverse group of housemates better and meets young people from all over Europe and from all walks of life, Xavier’s attitudes and outlook on life also begin to change. He finds himself attracted to other women, which leads to the breakup with his jealous girlfriend Marine, and he also witnesses at close range the ups and downs in the relationships and lives of his housemates, who all face their own challenges.

It is not a strong storyline or plot that drives the movie, but the interactions, experiences and subtle observations of the lives of a group of young Europeans, who have all come to Barcelona to study, but who also had more subtle and personal reasons to get away from home. As we follow the lives of Xavier and his housemates, it quickly becomes clear that the movie is about more than just a fun student exchange year in Barcelona. Although Xavier and his housemates appear to be a carefree group of students at first, they are in fact young people on the threshold of adulthood who are confronted with the responsibilities and choices that lie ahead of them. Instead of relying on commonly known stereotypes about various European nationalities, the movie focuses on the individual characters and how they deal with the small yet important challenges life brings them. Klapisch paints a realistic portrait of these foreign students, and his insights into their psyches and motivations are as comical as they are authentic and credible.

The film won several prizes at international film festivals, most notably a César (the French counterpart of the Oscar), which was awarded to Cécile De France (who plays Xavier’s Lesbian housemate Isabelle) for “most promising actress.”