Max DeCurtins revisits “the fear, the exhilaration, and the sheer fucking awkwardness of being in one’s mid-twenties” with this new look at Cedric Klapisch’s “L’Auberge Espagnole.”
“Show me a sane man and I will cure him for you.”—Carl Gustav Jung
So we may describe the unfolding of Xavier, a twenty-something French graduate student in economics who ventures to Barcelona for a year to study for his degree and to secure a governmental job. He leaves behind his steady, if introverted, girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou) and his hippie mother—who together form the backbone of his relatively sane life—and plunges headfirst into a situation in which he has to build a new identity for himself. Xavier heads to Barcelona speaking only elementary Spanish, convinced of only one thing: that he has to go, regardless of whether or not he actually intends to work as an economist.
L’Auberge Espagnole expertly captures the fear, the exhilaration, and the sheer fucking awkwardness of being in one’s mid-twenties. When life seems like a pantomime, many situations become fraught with the pronounced fear of fucking up, possibly with real consequences. Crucially, the film does not belabor this point. It makes clear that after living in a new place for some time you come to develop a familiarity with it, as well as a sense of ownership. As a UCSB alumnus, I feel this way about Isla Vista: it’s a shithole, but it’s our shithole, thank you very much. And, as I come up on four years in Boston—the first major city in which I’ve ever lived—I know that I’ve developed a similar feeling about Beantown and my current and former ‘hoods, Brighton and Jamaica Plain. Xavier comes to have this relationship with Barcelona, and while most of us get our first taste of this experience in college, our mid-to-late twenties somehow amplify the effect.L’Auberge Espagnole also emphasizes that, as much as the locale in which you find yourself, the people who form your primary and secondary social circles exercise just as much influence over your sense of identity. I generally think we know this instinctively, but at some point we become self-aware enough that we realize our own conscious power to change our sense of self. In leaving for Barcelona, Xavier begins a search for a new identity, and while he frames the whole experience as a series of events that happened to him (“Tout a commencé là, quand mon avion a décollé”—it all started when my plane took off), he comes to see that he can make deliberate choices that he knows will change his worldview.
Save the extramarital affair between Xavier and Anne-Sophie which, thanks to this being a French film, you know is coming the moment the two exchange hellos, I had completely forgotten almost everything else about this film. Though as it progressed I started to recall other elements of the story, watching this film ten years later nearly felt like seeing it again for the first time, an experience which, with a film of the quality ofL’Auberge Espagnole, felt nothing less than rapturous.
L’Auberge Espagnole is one part Pete Seeger, one part college study abroad brochure, and one part “What Color is Your Parachute?” Without aural or visual reference to little boxes (except, perhaps, the glimpses we get of the offices at the government ministry), the film deftly satirizes bureaucratic life and careerism. I laughed with a sick humor at the overlay of forms that infests the screen when Xavier asks the Erasmus coordinator what he needs to do to complete his file. From the second the first form pops up, you know exactly where this will end. This scene, and the use of the fisheye lens and fast-forwarded action at the beginning of the film, is all it needs to make its point; from there, the focus shifts to Barcelona, perhaps the study abroad archetype par excellence.
About that study abroad brochure: easily among the most attractive elements of the film, the idea of a multinational, polyglot household makes my inner geek swoon. Not so much the squalor (though this is hardly La Bohème), but the kind of fun one could have (and the kind of food one could cook) in such amalgamated domestic arrangements sets every one of my nerd synapses ablaze. I never studied abroad in college, never truly indulged my Francophilia, and now here I find myself, far too entrenched in the concerns of adulthood, regretting it one hundred and twenty percent.
L’Auberge Espagnole also incorporates the thread of Xavier “curing” himself of his sane—and safe—career choice, abandoning economics in order to pursue his childhood dream. Thankfully, the film treads lightly here, too: Xavier’s passion for writing functions as terse bookends to the story of his journey. In an era of suffocating inequality and financially-stretched governments at every level in countries around the world, and especially as a member of a generation that is now painfully reconciling the Clinton-era prosperity of our tween and early teen years with the sober task of forging a new model of adulthood (not even the Gen-X model of adulthood offers a useful framework), I think any mention of the trope of following one’s dream requires particularly expert handling, and this the film does well in a deft, understated manner.
For once, I don’t have much to say about the musical selections that populate the film. I suppose I could comment upon the trope of the “sexy beat” in music as expressed through the film’s presentation of flamenco (the trope being that music cannot be sensual or exciting unless it pulses forth from regular beats—ask someone why he or she likes a particular song and I’ll wager here and now that you’ll hear some mention of dance). Or perhaps I could address the bizarre appearance of Chopin’s famous waltz in C-sharp minor, which every advanced intermediate pianist plays at one time or another. I suppose the work, an exemplar of music that represents a specific class of piano pieces that one plays upon reaching a certain level of skill, could be mapped to Xavier’s attainment of a certain level of self-awareness. The Chopin waltz stands at the threshold of pianistic maturity; after this point, you either go on to work on fully-realized technique and the chefs d’œuvre of keyboard music—Bach fugues, Beethoven and Schubert sonatas, Chopin etudes, and various solo works by Brahms, Schumann, Debussy, and Rachmaninov—or you drop the piano altogether. And if we’re going to care at all about which music of the Western canon is used in film (and I know y’all do), I would have thought that a selection from Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole would make for the most fitting match with L’Auberge Espagnole. Spain has always loomed large in the French imagination of the exotic, and Ravel exemplifies this perhaps more than any other French composer. If we’re really going to stretch things, we can point out that Chopin’s C-sharp minor waltz shares some of the internationalism that inhabits the film—a stylized dance of German provenance written by a Polish composer in exile in Paris—but this work in no way conveys the sensuality that portions of Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole do. The waltz’s strong rhythmic profile and crystal-clear tonal harmony don’t map to the anxiety and uncertainty that Xavier experiences. Alas, I am not in charge of such decisions. (If I were, there would be an epidemic rash of movies featuring the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.)
I think that part of what makes L’Auberge Espagnole such a compelling film, at least for me, is how well it captures the multiplicity of sensations that accompany the process of becoming highly self-aware, and what it feels like not simply to be self-aware, but to own that self-awareness and use it to make deliberate decisions about one’s life. It’s by no means a comfortable position in which to reside, and it’s one in which I have found myself for the last year and a half, and I want out. Every moment of pleasure must be purchased with an equal moment of pain, as they say, and in the end we can’t say that Xavier really knows how happy and/or how sad he is to know what he now knows, something we witness as he wanders through the streets of what appears to be Montmartre. To adopt words more eloquent than mine (specifically, those of musicologist and noted crank Richard Taruskin): “It is good to know how not to know how much one is knowing.”
Did it surprise anyone else as much as it surprised me that Wendy doesn’t speak any French? My understanding of England’s linguistic situation vis-à-vis the Continent is that despite England’s longstanding rivalry with France, French remains a common, if not prevalent, second language among the English.
Kevin Bishop seems destined to play a brat. Watching his scenes actually made me grossly uncomfortable, precisely because his character really is that crass; had this film been an American production (just bear with me here), you can bet that the things that come out of William’s mouth would have met with withering criticism from American moviegoers.
I love the multilingual “default replies” sheet taped to the wall above the phone. Period.
In an era when LGBT rights and awareness breaks new ground with astonishing speed, L’Auberge Espagnole betrays its age—I think—in its depiction of Xavier receiving sex advice from Isabelle, his lesbian roommate from Belgium. What exactly is going on in this scene? I don’t think I’ve fully parsed this one yet, but I welcome comments from your dedicated 10YA readers expressing your thoughts.