L’auberge espagnole (Pot Luck, France/Spain 2002)

Xavier (extreme left) and flatmates.
Xavier (extreme left) and flatmates.

Film titles can be important for audiences. When French director Cédric Klapisch showed his film at festivals he is said to have wanted to call it Europudding (see this Guardian interview). This title has a very unfortunate meaning in the UK, where it is a term of abuse (a bit like ‘mid-Atlantic’) implying a film made simply to qualify for various forms of co-production funding and lacking any sense of coherent identity or artistic purpose. That isn’t what Klapisch meant of course and it eventually emerged as Pot Luck, which in English refers to a meal for visitors or travellers produced out of whatever ingredients are available – “I’ll take pot luck”. I’m not sure this is a better title, but at least it does relate to the plot. The French title, explained in the film, refers to the practice in a ‘Spanish inn’ when travellers brought food with them which was cooked in the inn. I missed the film on its cinema release and my memory is that it was still being described in the UK as a ‘europudding’. I’m not sure if this put me off, but since I’d seen (and enjoyed) the two previous comedies by Cédric Klapisch, I suspect not. I was probably just busy. Recently, I rented the DVD, spurred on by the lead role for the excellent Romain Duris and a support role for Cecile de France, so good in Un secret.

I enjoyed the film and I think it would work well with film students – the subject matter is relevant and the film benefits from sparky performances. I suspect that some of the quirky special effects which seem to irritate critics might work with younger audiences. Most of all, it offers a case study in using national stereotypes and transcending them. It’s also an interesting film in terms of American v ‘European’ understanding of the issues. (However, the reviews are mixed.)

The basic narrative idea draws on the Erasmus programme which offers exchange possibilities for European university students. Romain Duris is Xavier, a high-flying Parisian student who joins the programme to gain a postgraduate qualification for entry into the civil service and finds himself on an economics course in Barcelona. He gets to spend his year with a Brit, a Belgian, a Dane, a German, an Italian and a Castilian. The DVD no doubt confuses audiences outside France by promoting Audrey Tautou who plays a minor role as the girlfriend Xavier leaves behind in Paris. When the film was being made, Audrey Tautou had not achieved her high profile via Amélie.

Barcelona has been one of the most attractive cities in Europe for some time and Klapisch makes the most of its possibilities (although I’m surprised that more isn’t made of the waterfront and the Nou Camp). The intelligence in the film for me is highlighted by a subplot which sees Xavier making love to a beautiful young French woman he meets on the plane to Catalonia.

The woman is a newly-wed with an older husband (also French) who is the kind of boring guy that Xavier would usually ignore. However, when his accommodation falls through, Xavier is forced to look up the newly weds and plead for a chance to sleep on their couch. When the husband neglects his young wife because of work commitments, he persuades Xavier (now in a student flat) to take her out sightseeing. We know the young woman is distressed and attracted to Xavier (she had seen him crying on the plane), but when she criticises Barcelona as ‘dirty’, we know that Xavier is justified in upbraiding her. But later, when the couple have got together very successfully, Xavier lets himself down by boasting about his new sexual prowess. I recognised much of Xavier’s behaviour as typical of the awkward process of ‘growing up’ and I think that this is the strength of the film. It deals with national types and familiar instances of language/culture splits (relating the Flemish/Walloon split to that of Catalonia/Castile) in a light and witty way and concludes that all the different students are warm human beings rather than comic ‘cut-outs’. The director’s interests clearly lie with the French and English characters, but I thought that they were presented in the same clear-eyed way as the others.

The IMDB comments are interesting in that there is an obvious awareness about how different this is to a Hollywood ‘fraternity comedy’ with several commentators noting that American films in this genre are usually far less subtle. On the other hand, it is quite strange to see negative comments about the sexual behaviour of the students (including Xavier) – plenty of mileage in discussing societal attitudes here.

Of course, L’auberge espagnole is a ‘popular film’ and comparable to the ‘brat pack’ films from Hollywood in the 1980s. Romain Duris and Cécile de France have since become stars and Kelly Reilly and Judith Godrèche were already established. The film has been enormously successful across Europe, clocking up nearly 5 million admissions across the ‘Europe of 36’ since 2002. Not surprisingly, France saw nearly 3 million admissions. Perhaps surprisingly, the US saw over 600,000 and Quebec 170,000. Spain, Germany and Italy were other big markets, but the UK was pathetic with admissions below Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary and many other European countries. Was the title really a problem or is it a bad case of Europhobia? I’m amazed (and saddened). I hope some UK schoolteachers will take a chance on the film. I’m off to find the sequel, The Russian Dolls from 2005, and I look forward to local screenings of the latest Klapisch, Paris (starring Romain Duris and Juliet Binoche).

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