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Wednesday, April 7, 2004
Life lessons in cross-cultural chaos
After two years at a rural New England college with brutally long winters that left me on the verge of bursting into someone's dorm room with an ax shouting "Heeere's Johnny!" I resolved to spend my third year abroad somewhere, anywhere. That it ended up being Kyoto was a whim, albeit a choice I wouldn't have made if I knew I'd be sleeping in an unheated room, separated from a snow-covered garden by no more than thin paper shoji.
Looking back on it now, though, through the soft-focus lens of nostalgia, it doesn't seem that bad, which holds true for all my memories of that old ryokan-turned-"gaijin house." It was a multinational mess of eccentrics -- a Ocho cultie fresh from the ashram, a Chinese doctor whose Buddhist beliefs wouldn't let us poison the rats that plagued our kitchen, a nymphomaniac Osaka housewife who went through every guy in the house -- but I wouldn't have traded it for the world. More than any college course, it offered valuable lessons in mutual tolerance and flexibility.
All of which left me sympathetic to director Cedric Klapisch's latest, "L'Auberge Espagnole," a light comedy centered on a French exchange student who spends a year in a similarly anarchic dwelling, filled with a veritable European Union of broad-minded youths. It's a decent paean to the joys and agonies of culture-clash communal living, but it's also hardly unique. One of the first things I learned on returning to the States after my year in Kyoto was that everybody's year overseas was life-changing, and that everybody had a story or anecdote to top all the others, ad infinitum. But Klapisch's tales aren't exactly show-stoppers.
On the other hand, that might be what gives his film a certain charm, in that it captures a familiar experience, as opposed to Hollywood crap like "The Rules of Attraction." Of course, the idea of having both "Amelie" 's Audrey Tautou as girlfriend and the regal Judith Godreche as lover -- while having a just barely platonic intimacy with a lesbian buddy (Cecile de France) -- may be a reality less familiar to those of us who aren't French filmmakers. Nevertheless, sexual conundrums -- particularly the tension between lover at home and lover abroad -- are common enough experiences, although Klapisch focuses on them almost to the exclusion of everything else.
Twenty-five-year-old Xavier (Romain Duris, "Gadjo Dilo," looking like a different person minus the hair) is pondering his future after graduation. A bureaucrat friend of his father's promises a career-track ministry job if he can combine his major in economics with Spanish-language skills. Xavier then manages to land a place on the Erasmus exchange program that fosters cultural cross-fertilization in the E.U. nations.
Arriving in Barcelona, Xavier's first hurdle -- besides finding out that the Catalan spoken there is rather different from the Spanish he'd been studying -- is finding somewhere to live. After one place doesn't work out, he crashes with a nerdy but affable French neurologist, Jean-Michel (Xavier de Guillebon), and his gorgeous and demure young wife, Anne-Sophie (Godreche). Jean-Michel asks Xavier to spend some time with the lonely Anne-Sophie, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see where that's going.
Xavier finally lands a room in an anarchic, overpopulated flat full of exchange students from Germany, Belgium, England, Italy and Denmark -- "a literal Euro-pudding," as Xavier puts it. First he has to pass an interview with all his flatmates, who want to ensure that he won't ruin the "good vibes" in the place. (Oh, the flashbacks that scene evoked . . . ) But once in, he takes to it like a duck to water.
Anyone who's shared similarly cramped living quarters will chuckle at Xavier's descriptions of how refrigerator space is shared, or the impossibility of having a private conversation on the phone: He gets a chorus of cheeky "Je t'aime, mon amour" from his roommates after a call from his Parisian girlfriend Martine (Tautou). Also on the mark is an uncomfortable visit from Martine, who resents Xavier's closeness with his flatmates and his life without her. She finds the lack of privacy unconducive to making love, and lets Xavier know that in no uncertain terms. (Fans of "Amelie" will be surprised to see Tautou in aggressive-bitch mode here.)
Still, with his assured lesbian roommate, Isabelle (De France), giving him lessons on how to seduce women ("Contrary to what they say, most women want to feel your grip, they want to be your prisoner"), Xavier is soon putting the moves on luscious Anne-Sophie. Typically French, he also feels proprietary enough of his English flatmate Wendy (Kelly Reilly) to disapprove and feel hurt when she takes in an American lover. This Euro-pudding may be all about peace, love and understanding -- but only so far, as the American is the butt of all jokes.
The French sensibility is further displayed when Wendy's lager-lout brother, William (Kevin Bishop), shows up, to crash for a bit while on holiday, and alienates everyone with his poor attempts at humor -- which mostly involve ethnic stereotyping. (Poor Tobias, the German roommate, hits his limit with the Hitler jokes.) William might also appear too much of a stereotype -- were it not for the fact that you can meet his equivalent at a Roppongi pub most nights of the week.
"L'Auberge Espagnole' wavers between mundane insight and exceptional ordinariness, with a halfway-decent film in between. Klapisch does build one perfectly set-up joke over about 10 minutes to a laugh-out-loud punchline, and that alone is worth a look. Perhaps the biggest eye-opener for Japanese audiences will be to see a group of bright young people, serious students who will go on to serious jobs, enjoying some nice Spanish ganja when they unwind -- just as readily as they would crack a beer. Now there's an education.