Pot Luck (L’auberge espagnole)

France (2002) Dir. Cédric Klapisch

The European Union has been a central political talking point in this country of ours for many a year now but as ever most European citizens try to put politics aside in the name of harmony, creating cosy little multi-national relationships for themselves. This is the premise behind what has become known as the Spanish Apartment Trilogy, which is a more accurate translation of the French title, from writer-director Cédric Klapisch

It is told through the eyes of Xavier (Romain Duris), a French economics graduate who is sent to Barcelona for a year to study as part of a job requirement. At first Xavier finds himself having to bunk down on the couch of newlywed doctor Jean-Michael (Xavier De Guillebon) and his shy wife Anne-Sophie (Judith Godrèche). He eventually moves into a shared apartment of international housemates: English girl Wendy (Kelly Reilly), local senorita Soledad (Cristina Brondo), Tobias (Barnaby Metschurat) from Germany, Danish lad Lars (Christian Pagh) and Italian Allesandro (Federico D’Anna), with Xavier’s Belgian classmate Isabelle (Cécile De France) moving in when the rent is increased.

Pot Luck was a bit hit in France and despite its Spanish setting and multi-lingual dialogue this is very much a French film in feel and attitude. The story, or rather the developments, is based around two main plot lines – Xavier’s initial culture shock and gradual assimilation of his new surroundings and his personal relationships, all of which shape his eventual outlook on life. As the central protagonist and narrator the rest of the intercontinental housemates straddle a fine line between convenient catalysts and prominent supporting roles to Xavier, with only Wendy getting a subplot of her own.

Xavier’s crisis begins when he has to leave clingy girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou) behind who takes his departure heavily, and when she flies to Spain to pay Xavier a visit and is unhappy with how he has changed. This attitude drives Xavier into the arms of Anne-Sophie who he has been showing around Barcelona. She reciprocates since her husband is always working, a full on affair developing after lesbian Isabelle teaches Xavier some seduction techniques, although he ends up confused when Martine dumps him by phone.

Wendy’s subplot is again built around relationships and sex as she distances herself from the rowdy antics of her housemates and is the “mother” of the group. However on a boozy night out she meets an American chap whom she regular sleeps with – then her boyfriend Alistair arrives from England for a visit!! This scenario successfully highlights the unspoken communal bond which has formed between the housemates as they all rally round to get back to the apartment before Alistair catches Wendy in bed with her American lover.

The housemates may play a small part in the overall plot but the unity they create over time is one which I feel safe in presuming is to be taken as a symbol of differing cultures over coming the usual boundaries and coming together as one. They all learn each other’s languages – even if it is a few words or phrases – and respect each other’s cultures as a bunch of strangers in a strange land supporting each other. This facet gives the film a certain charm and nice distraction from Xavier’s conventional romantic dilemmas.

An amusing gag which typifies this is the poster by the phone with each of the individual flags on it, next to it is the phrase “(X) is not here right. He/she will be back later” in the corresponding language for each housemate to tell the international caller! All I will say is, Wendy needs to brush up on her French!

One thing that stands out however, at least for this writer, is how the British characters are portrayed which I wonder was either revenge for all the years we’ve stereotyped them in films and TV – Wendy is quite uptight and speaks in a deliberate plummy accent – or a satire on cultural ignorance for which the Brit just happened to be the conduit – her younger brother William (Kevin Bishop) is a typical “lad” who upsets everyone upon his arrival with his offensive stereotypical jokes about foreign accents. I imagine though that other nations will regard this as a spot on observation.

Despite this there is a genuine sense of authenticity and verisimilitude in the overall presentation in the Barcelona set scenes, which are shot with intimacy and honest appreciation without any sense of exaggeration to suggest the student life is one big holiday. That isn’t to say Barcelona isn’t shown in a good light but the temptation to make a travelogue video is resisted for the sake of the visual narrative.

The film begins with a quirky style which incorporates visual gimmicks to show the rush of information Xavier is bombarded with when arranging his trip abroad, all of which is abandoned once we change settings until the final act. In other words this promised zany comedy vibe is a tad misleading but ultimately easily forgotten.

With all due respect to the widespread cast only the French and English names will be recognisable for a UK audience. Romain Duris fits quite nicely into the role of Xavier, his ability to look forlorn and helpless a huge plus. Audrey Tautou is suitably unsympathetic and selfish as Martine and while she was still on the rise in 2002, in retrospect she is rather underused here. Judith Godrèche’s role as Anne-Sophie felt more impactful and was Kelly Reilly and Kevin Bishop are both very natural in the roles and probably get the “unscripted” feel of their performances the most of all the cast.

I believe Pot Luck would arguably resonate more with students or ex-students although it has enough charm to appeal beyond that audience. While I enjoyed it, I’m not sure how this film spawned two sequels but I am somewhat keen to see what the future has in store for Xavier and co.