Magazine article The New Yorker

School Days the Current Cinema

Magazine article The New Yorker

School Days the Current Cinema

Article excerpt

Cedric Klapisch, the talented director of "When the Cat's Away," wrote his new picture, "L'Auberge Espagnole," in less than two weeks, cast it on the fly in different European cities, and shot it in Barcelona with a lightweight digital camera. "L'Auberge Espagnole" is a discursive, sketchbook movie about a twenty-five-year-old Parisian graduate student, Xavier (Romain Duris), who goes to Spain on an exchange program and lives with a polyglot mix of students in a cramped walkup apartment. Lousy with books, magazines, clothes, and a variety of unspeakable leftovers, rudely crammed into the fridge, the apartment is, understandably, a mess. Xavier's father is a businessman, his mother a hippie; he's a handsome young man, but conventional and rather withdrawn, and not quite sure who he is. Xavier is in suspension--all seven of the Barcelona apartment dwellers are in suspension, studying and dawdling in delicious bohemian squalor before taking the government and corporate jobs that will, as the movie suggests, bring the bourgeois prison walls down around them. "L'Auberge Espagnole" is vignettish and offhand, but it's extremely pleasant, and it suggests what can be done with lightweight equipment and a loose-limbed approach to the right subject. Such things as Xavier's resume and various Web sites pop onto the screen, eagerly overlapping one another. Episodes set in bureaucratic Paris are speeded up while the mocking sound of scurrying feet is heard on the soundtrack. The flashing digital methods and the playful use of graphics and sound punch up the subject of youthful indeterminacy. "L'Auberge Espagnole" (which in French slang means a free-for-all) is intended to be evanescent--a quick glance at the young people of the new, unified Europe as they noodle their way to adulthood. Tomorrow, the moment will have passed and the portrait may be different.

Forty years ago, lightweight cameras and tape recorders liberated the cinema-verite filmmakers in America and the New Wave directors in Paris, sending the Americans into political caucus rooms and prison cells and the French into streets and cafes; digital equipment, which is lighter still, could have a similar effect in opening up new subjects. At least, it will revive the old dream of spontaneity, which goes back to Mack Sennett and Chaplin--the dream of just going out with a group of colleagues and friends and making a movie. Sometimes, of course, the results are disastrous--movies like Steven Soderbergh's arrogantly indecipherable "Full Frontal." But Klapisch is an entertainer--he loves anecdotes--and "L'Auberge Espagnole" trips along charmingly. Shot with the Sony HD24p high-definition camera, the movie looks surprisingly good. The characters, searching for romance and good times, wander through Barcelona's raffishly glamorous ochre streets, across the Gaudi pavilions, the sun-drenched piazzas; the movie is as much a love letter to the erotic pleasures of Barcelona as the New Wave films were to the endless social and intellectual enchantments of Paris.

Yet the young people in the Barcelona apartment don't have explicit ideas or attitudes, the way Godard's political youth did in "La Chinoise." They merely want to get along together as Europeans, an undertaking that Klapisch (and his audience in France, where the movie was a big hit) apparently finds ineffably funny. The movie is a Euro pajama party, an awkward rite of passage involving endless misunderstandings and quarrels, but the mix of nationalities may be more novel to the French than it is to Americans, who take an ethnic jumble for granted. Xavier's identity is unseated by the Spanish, Danish, German, English, and Italian voices in his head, and he undergoes an internal revolution. Having left a girlfriend behind in Paris, he falls in with a young French couple in Barcelona and has an affair with the wife (Judith Godreche), a ravishing but rather dim beauty. One of his roommates, Isabelle (Cecile De France), a Walloon speaker from Belgium, is a lesbian who instructs him in the intricacies of how women like to be touched and held. …

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