Before she played one half of a lesbian infatuation in the 2005 thriller High Tension, Belgian actress Cécile de France was already accustomed to playing a lesbian on the silver screen. In 2002, de France won a Cèsar (the French equivalent of an Oscar) for her role as Isabelle, a lesbian student, in the European hit L'Auberge Espagnole. De France reprised the role of Isabelle in the 2005 sequel, Russian Dolls (Les Poupées Russes), and although the sequel was not as well-received as the original, Isabelle's character continued to be smart, funny, strong and very sexy.
In French, “l'auberge espagnole” literally means “the Spanish hostel,” but is also used to describe a busy and chaotic place; the film captures both meanings of the term. Xavier (Romain Duris) is a French economics student about to finish college, who is pressured by his father to attend graduate school in Spain before taking a position working under his father's friend. In order to get the job, Xavier needs to speak Spanish and be familiar with the Spanish markets, so Xavier leaves his home in France and his girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou), to study in Barcelona for one year.
Arriving in Spain, he is forced to navigate an entirely unfamiliar environment in a foreign language. He soon meets Isabelle, a Belgian foreign exchange student also studying economics; she is self-confident and slightly androgynous in appearance, with short hair and masculine mannerisms. Xavier sees her as different from the typical economics student and is intrigued by her from the beginning.
He finds a room in an apartment filled with students from all over Europe, and when they need another roommate, he invites Isabelle to apply. Soon after she gets the room, her girlfriend comes to visit. Xavier assumes they are just friends and jokes about them sleeping in the same bed. At this point, Isabelle tells Xavier in no uncertain terms that she is a lesbian; he is upset, not because he has any problems with her sexuality, but because he was hoping for a chance with her.
L'Auberge is mostly in French, but parts are also in English, Spanish and Danish, and it reflects the changes Europe has gone through since the establishment of the European Union, including the increasing contact and interdependence between its member states as well as their many cultural differences. In the film, all of the exchange students, who hail from Italy, France, Belgium, Germany, Denmark and England, live in one crowded apartment, trying — in many humorous moments — to adapt to each other's cultures and life as a foreigner.
Although many things are questioned in the film (including Xavier's relationship with Martine and his career aspirations), Isabelle's sexuality, thankfully, is not one of them. Isabelle and Xavier become very close, and at one point she says to him, “too bad you aren't a girl,” to which he replies, “the world's poorly made.”
Isabelle's portrayal of a lesbian supporting character is refreshingly quotidian. She is not struggling with coming out and is certain of and secure with her sexuality throughout the film, regardless of her closeness to Xavier and his feelings for her. She offers advice and struggles with the same life and love questions as the heterosexual characters. In both films, Isabelle gives Xavier advice on how to date women and how he should treat them, even giving him sex advice.