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(2003) (Romain Duris, Cécile de France) (R)

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Subtitled and English Drama: Various international students live together in a Barcelona apartment while enrolled in a foreign study program.
Xavier (ROMAIN DURIS) is a student in France who's decided to participate in the Erasmus foreign study program where he'll complete his senior year in Barcelona. That doesn't sit well with his hometown girlfriend, Martine (AUDREY TAUTOU), but he's soon off to the cosmopolitan city where he speaks little of its native language.

For a while, he ends up staying with fellow Parisians Jean-Michel (XAVIER DE GUILLEBON) and Anne-Sophie (JUDITH GODRÈCHE) who have recently moved there. Jean-Michel is a neurologist and asks Xavier if he wouldn't mind escorting his new bride around the city since she similarly knows no one there.

Xavier does and they eventually become more than friends. Nevertheless, he ends up finding a place in an apartment full of international students that includes English Wendy (KELLY REILLY) and later her brother William (KEVIN BISHOP); Spaniard Soledad (CRISTINA BRONDO); as well as Italian Alessandro (FEDERICO D'ANNA), Dane Lars (CHRISTIAN PAGH) and German Tobias (BARNABY METSCHURAT).

When their landlord raises their rent, Xavier proposes that his Belgian lesbian classmate, Isabelle (CÉCILE DE FRANCE), join them, and soon their apartment is overflowing with people, languages and varied tastes. As the year progresses and everyone's lives unfold and develop, Xavier tries to juggle his classes, living situation, an affair with Anne-Sophie and his long distance relationship with Martine.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
When it comes to the number of adult people in a house, one might be the loneliest number that you'll ever see, two's company and three's a crowd. Any more than that and you're looking at a family gathering, party and/or a disaster waiting to happen.

For various reasons and ignoring the ages old plea of "Why can't we all just get along?" people often have a hard time doing just that when the numbers get too large. Put enough of them together in a small space and things are bound to get contentious, particularly if they don't see eye to eye and/or come from completely different backgrounds.

That's been the allure of reality shows such as "The Real World" and "Big Brother" and it's now being used in the French dramedy, "L'Auberge Espagnole" (a.k.a. "The Spanish Apartment"). Somewhat analogous to the United Nations meets The Real World, the film features an ever-growing number of young roommates from all around the world who are housed together in a Barcelona apartment.

As written and directed by Cédric Klapisch ("When the Cat's Away," "Lumière and Company"), the film is more drama than comedy. That's somewhat unfortunate as the few moments where it goes that latter route are more successful than the far greater quantity of the former. Perhaps sensing that, Klapisch has given the film something of the "Amelie" touch with an ever-present narrator and various visual tricks (most notably sped up film, drawing on the screen and varying degrees of split-screen use).

None of it's as amusing, creative or as infectiously fun as in that previous French flick, and notably absent are all of the quirky, witty and often hilarious asides and observations that made that film such a critical and audience favorite.

Of course, this film isn't trying to be "Son of Amelie," but it's fairly charming and its protagonist -- Romain Duris ("Gadjo Dilo" "Peut-Etre") in a winning performance - is a French son who goes to school in Spain. There, he meets and interacts with the various multi-national roommates and others.

Considering that the comedy is relatively sparse (until a late in the game sequence of near-farcical misdirection that generates some laughs) and the visual effects pretty much evaporate after the first act, the drama isn't anything to study. That's particularly true when one considers the close quarters set-up, and plentiful opportunities for misunderstandings and/or misinterpretations.

Even so, there was something about the effort - which garnered six César nominations (the French equivalent of the Oscar) - that kept me engaged and interested from start to finish in how things would play out. Although I'm not a fan of those reality shows or soap opera theatrics, I imagine part of the attraction was in trying to figure out who wound end up with whom.

For Xavier, it doesn't appear that it will be his new roommate -- Cécile De France ("Les Mythes Urbains," "À+Pollux") who won the Most Promising Actress award out of those nominations - since she turns out to be a lesbian. Her "tutoring," however, helps him with Anne-Sophie - the ravishing Judith Godrèche ("The Man in the Iron Mask," "Ridicule") - while he still has feelings for his hometown girlfriend played by French ingénue Audrey Tautou ("Amelie," "Vénus Béaute").

Kelly Reilly ("Last Orders," "Maybe Baby") gets a decent slice of the script pie as a young English woman who has her own affair, but the rest of those playing the remaining roommates are pretty much shortchanged when it comes to storylines or distinctive characteristics.

Considering the varied character ingredients mixed into this cinematic melting pot, the film could and probably should have generated a tastier yield and/or boiled over more from time to time. If not for the visual tricks and voice over narration, this would have probably just been a run-of-the-mill teen and twenty-something late coming of age story (the big hurrah, if you will, before life really begins, or ends, depending on how you look at it).

As it stands, it isn't a great deal more from a storytelling aspect, but it's engaging enough to earn a passing grade. Nothing tremendous, but a decent bit of relatively charming and diversionary entertainment, "L'Auberge Espagnole" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed May 13, 2003 / Posted May 23, 2003

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