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Knee deep in Euro pudding

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L'Auberge Espagnole, which either means The Spanish Hotel or Euro Pudding (depending on who you listen to), is way closer to being a Real World movie than The Real Cancun was. Actually, if you were able to mate MTV's groundbreaking reality show with Lukas Moodysson's Swedish communal comedy Together, you'd end up with something a lot like Espagnole. Or possibly like Rachel Dratch's Saturday Night Live character with the arm growing out of its head --- it's difficult to say for sure.

            The film's central character is Xavier (Romain Duris), a Parisian who is told by a connected friend of his father's that he'll find a wide-open job market once he acquires a detailed knowledge of Spanish economics. Eager to take the advice, Xavier enrolls in the Erasmus program (a kind of a European foreign exchange plan) and heads for the University of Barcelona, leaving behind his clingy, hippie mother (Lise Lamitrie) and possessive, weepy girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou).

            Finding his original housing situation far less than ideal, Xavier temporarily shacks up with a French neurologist (Xavier De Guillebon) he met on his flight. As an added bonus, he gets to hang out with the doctor's incredibly hot but non-French-speaking wife, Anne-Sophie (Judith Godrhche), when he's not attending classes. Eventually, Xavier lands in a cramped apartment he shares with delegates from most of the European Union (a Brit, a Dane, an Italian, a German, a Spaniard, and a Belgian). It's like The Real World Europe, on account of everybody being disgustingly attractive and having both petty love problems and zero energy. Except there are about a half-dozen languages being thrown around here, instead of just the English and Ebonics on RW. Oh, and dig the physical resemblance between Wendy's visiting brother and Real World: Back to New York's Mike, who are both ignorant but well-meaning xenophobes.

            One of writer-director Cidric Klapisch's (When the Cat's Away) underlying themes in Espagnole is the effect of the homogenization of Europe, a point made very clear in a scene where one of Xavier's teachers insists on delivering his lectures in Catalan, instead of traditional Spanish. Klapisch, who shot the film using high-definition DV, based the story on his own very similar experiences in the Erasmus program. And without that real-life understanding we probably wouldn't be treated to nice little touches, like the chart next to the communal phone with flags and translations for the phrase "He's not here right now."

            Despite being nominated for six César awards and winning one (Cécile de France for Most Promising Actress), there are some fairly glaring flaws in Espagnole. The characters are very stereotypical, despite the attempts to deny that fact in the film's press notes. Xavier narrates parts of the story but the narration vanishes for long stretches of time. You could say the same thing about Klapisch's nearly over-the-top visuals, which dominate Espagnole's first 10 minutes and begin to make him seem like Jeunet Lite, then practically disappear. The overall effect is a bit rambling and unfocused, but you could almost be distracted by the beauty of Barcelona and pretty much every character in the film. (I've pledged my undying love for Amélie's Tautou a number of times, and she's probably the fourth most attractive actress here.) The hip soundtrack ranges from Radiohead to Ali Farka Touri.

Former film critic Bertrand Tavernier's latest, which screens at the Dryden Theatre this Friday evening, depicts an interesting period in French cinema. That statement may cause most people to assume Safe Conduct is about the much-heralded French New Wave, but this film focuses on what it was like to work in the Parisian motion picture industry during the years of German occupation.

            There are two main characters in Conduct, and the most interesting is Jean Devaivre (Jacques Gamblin), a former cycling pro who reluctantly accepts an assistant-director gig at Continental Films and becomes a propaganda-producing German collaborator... Or is he really using his credentials (the film's title, Laissez-Passer, refers to a "safe conduct" pass that allowed Devaivre to freely roam the streets) to aid the French Resistance and stash his family safely out in the country?

            On the opposite end of the spectrum is Jean Aurenche (Denis Podalydès), a stubborn screenwriter who refuses to work "with" the Germans and still finds clever ways to sneak his own anti-Nazi messages past censors and into his scripts. He's also a womanizer, constantly on the move between a married actress (Charlotte Kady), a flophouse floozy (Marie Gillain), and a contemporary in the industry (Maria Pitarresi) while living out of two shabby suitcases.

            The double Silver Bear winner in Berlin features an epic-sized cast (there are as many speaking roles here as in Russian Ark) as well as a streak of dark humor which is, at times, a little off-putting. There are plenty of inside jokes for viewers intimately familiar with period French cinema (or at least that's what I've been told). The story is actually based on a book written by the real Devaivre, who collaborated with the real Aurenche, who worked with the real Tavernier when his career was getting started. Alain Choquart's camera barely stops moving, portraying both the turmoil of the time and giving Conduct a perpetual sense of urgency, which, for a film that takes nearly three hours to unspool, is both funny and irritating.

Interested in raw, unsanitized movie ramblings from Jon? Visit his site, Planet Sick-Boy (www.sick-boy.com), or listen to him on WBER's Friday Morning Show.

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