A movie like L'Auberge Espagnole should feel like an embrace. You should be pulled into the close-knit environment of seven young, smart, sexy Europeans living together in a Barcelona flat (The title translates to "Euro Pudding"). You should feel the confusion of the movie's young protagonist as he struggles with his feelings for three women.
Though it is a solid movie with some astute observations, L'Auberge Espagnole constantly pushes you away like a busy parent on a deadline. The movie never makes a connection because it's too busy tackling too many subjects, instead of focusing on doing one thing well.
You know how some people try to cram 48 hours into a 24-hour day? Well, those people now have a movie to call their own.
The plot starts off simply enough. Confused young Frenchman Xavier (Romain Duris) is told by his father's former business associate that the future is in Spanish economics. So, Xavier packs his bags, says goodbye to his girlfriend Martine (Amelie's Audrey Tautou), and goes to business school in Barcelona to start on the so-called right path.
At the Barcelona airport, Xavier meets a young French couple. Jean-Michel (Xavier De Guillebon) is a cocky neurosurgeon; Anne-Sophie (Judith Godrèche) is a shy and repressed beauty. While looking for lodging, Xavier stays with the accommodating couple, and becomes a friend to the beautiful Anne. Both are homesick and intimidated by the country they now call home.
Xavier eventually finds space with the aforementioned group of Europeans, in a multi-roomed flat that is convincingly dirty and cramped. When there is a rent increase, Xavier recruits a sexy classmate (Cècile De France), who he begins to fall for. However, when she admits that she's a lesbian, he's uses her to provide foreplay techniques, which he then uses on Anne, who barely raises a fuss.
Meanwhile, Xavier is having communication problems with his girlfriend back home, which leads to even more confusion on his part. Though, I imagine it's a slight easier to deal with such confusion when you're bedding a curvy beauty.
In between all of the longing, crying, and bed hopping, the audience gets to meet Xavier's roommates, who are all immensely likable and quirky. The only setback is there is so much material to be covered that you never feel like you're watching a complete movie. It's more like watching a detailed outline that's still being worked on. You get segments with the roommates that are fun and poignant, and then you get whisked away to a bedroom or a teary phone call. Then the ride begins all over again.
Obviously, you don't get to know any of the conflicts or characters on an intimate level, which is a downright pity. You could devote a whole series of movies on Anne, who is an intimidating beauty, but is easily controlled by the two men in her life. Her affair with Xavier would have been a great examination of how two lost people function intimately (like The Good Girl or You Can Count on Me), but it goes nowhere until its lousy conclusion. Xavier's relationship with Martine and his hippie mom would also be fertile movie ground, but that gets middling attention.
The roommates' treatment is even more baffling. We don't get to know their problems and their dynamic, save for fights over fridge space and a night of partying. One of the characters discovers he's a father, but the issue gets dealt with like he gets a speeding ticket. Another character, Wendy (played by the lovely Kelly Reilly) gets into a screaming match with Xavier over her responsible nature. The exchange is awkward, because we barely know her. It's even more unusual when she's shaking her groove thing at a club minutes later.
If director/writer Cédric Klapisch simply cut several characters and pared down the subplots, I could see myself loving this movie. Klapisch, though, refuses to make choices. So, characters and scenes (Wendy's obnoxious, un-PC brother, an elaborate plan to distract Wendy's boyfriend) get crammed in, without regard to the tone and flow of the story. The onscreen result is a classic example of woulda, coulda, shoulda.
Aka The Spanish Apartment.