Revolving around the social and romantic escapades of a pan-European set of Erasmus students in Barcelona, Cédric Klapisch’s latest is closer in tone to his sunny, sprawling Parisian-set Chacun Cherche Son Chat than the oppressive, claustrophobic follow-up Un Air de Famille. But as well as the postcard-friendly compositions, meandering plot and expansive, eccentric cast list, L’Auberge Espagnole shares the intimations of melancholy and alienation which played around the edges of Chat (and would come to the fore in Famille).
Constructed around French post-graduate Xavier, the film ticks along at a leisurely pace, unhurriedly accruing details of character and situation around his search for an apartment and social contentment. Initially pleasant enough, this approach wears thin over 122 minutes, with random episodes piling up towards the end underpinned by little sense of purpose or weight of character. The ostensibly carefree student life is, however, frequently undercut by gently simmering resentments. The spectre of infidelity hovers around each of the film’s numerous relationships, while Xavier’s interaction with those outside the apartment – his mother, his girlfriend, the couple into whose marriage he interposes himself – is usually characterised by disappointment or frustration. Nor are these problems presented as soluble, but facts to be accepted and lived with: personal development and sexual mishaps might form the main plot markers here, but Klapisch is hardly trying for a European take on the frat-house comedy. (Nor, with seven flatmates of seven nationalities, dialogue in at least four languages and unabashed discussions of cultural identity, could anyone mistake it as such.)
As an aspiring writer given to copious narration, Xav is proposed as our sympathetic guide, but he and Klapisch expect us to take rather too much on faith. At one point Xav chastises Anne-Sophie, his married girlfriend, for avoiding the dirt and dinge of the city’s darker corners; yet the film’s Barcelona is all romantic squares, bright beaches and Gaudi ornament. Quite what he finds so adorably appealing about his fellow flatmates, whose squabbling self-importance and premium on ‘good vibes’ soon begin to grate, is never made clear; nor are we shown why the English girl Wendy’s American bit on the side should be subject to such derisive scorn, beyond perhaps the fact of his nationality. The opprobrium loaded onto Wendy’s brother, who visits as part of an Interrail trip, is more understandable given his characterisation as an insensitive boor prone to getting legless, flashing his arse and indulging in clichéd stereotypes. But his character is essentially a stereotype in itself, albeit one salvaged by Kevin Bishop’s fine performance.
There is a lazy feel as well to Klapisch’s taste for unnecessary stylistic flourishes. A false opening, rewound after a few seconds to start at an earlier point, is presumably intended to emphasise Xav’s role as narrator, but remains the only indication of his creative control over the story. Elsewhere speeded-up footage, image-lag effects and overlaid graphics and collage sequences, distract rather than enhance. Xav is presented as emerging from his year abroad a substantially changed man, ready to recount his Bildungsroman; but despite its occasional charm and engaging unsentimentality, L’Auberge Espagnole hardly qualifies as a life-defining experience.