Self Portrait: Agnès Jaoui’s “Look at Me”
by Kristi Mitsuda with responses from Nicolas Rapold and Michael Koresky
[ indieWIRE’s weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot. ]
The title of French actress Agnès Jaoui‘s second outing as director is instructive. Before we see any images in “Look at Me,” we hear voices on the soundtrack, a sly “Shall we start?” followed by bell-clear singing. When the visual track opens on a young girl, Lolita (Marilou Berry, who resembles a young Ricki Lake), lip-syncing to a tape-recording of her music lesson (a clever way of illustrating the remove from which we will soon learn the character experiences her body) there’s an immediate dissonance. Her unconventional leading-lady looks clash with expectations set up in those few moments of darkness, which prime the audience for a physical embodiment to match the beauty of that melodiousness. From the outset then, Jaoui makes us abashedly aware of the biases we bring to bear on performers, jarring us into recognition of our own culpability in the issues, not least our internalized slavishness to the apprising gaze of others, which she incisively explores in the course of the film.
As in her previous feature, “The Taste of Others,” Jaoui showcases an ensemble of exquisitely-flawed Parisians. Our plucky heroine, whose pudginess automatically places her outside the realm of ideal Western beauty, is the center around which everyone revolves in this cinematic treatise on self-image, a corrective to her marginalization within the confines of her represented reality. From her self-absorbed father, celebrated novelist Etienne (Jaoui’s writing and acting partner, Jean-Pierre Bacri), to her thin, pretty stepmother, Karine (Virginie Desarnauts); from her initially withholding voice coach, Sylvia (Jaoui), to the latter’s husband, brooding, up-and-coming writer Pierre (Laurent Grevill), Lolita’s neediness is met with rebuffs both inadvertent and cruel. Set in and around the publishing sphere, the perfect place to pitch a story that scrutinizes the insidious ways self-regard and perceptions of others morphs with outside approval or lack thereof, “Look at Me” weaves a tapestry out of the universal clamoring for validation as it plays out amongst this group of people.
Animated not so much by narrative as it is a gorgeously choreographed dance of looks, slouches, unnoticed humiliations, lonely wallowings, and flashes of irritation flitting across the faces and through the body language of the characters, Jaoui makes transparent what usually remains hidden from plain view in the hustle and bustle of involved everyday life. Scene after scene charts the ripple effects of a stray word or gesture which leave in their wake the remnants of shattered self-esteem or else the seeds of narcissism. Such tensions are palpable in the way Lolita, in her bravado about her “boyfriend”‘s impending arrival, allows her long hair to hang in front of her face upon meeting Sebastien (Keine Bouhiza); when a house painter asks Pierre where she’s seen him before, in his first instance of public recognition, and we sense inklings of his transformation from self-doubting artist to egotist; how Etienne’s lack of interest in others, manifest in numerous, understated ways, heartbreakingly crests as we observe him at his daughter’s concert, distracted, unimpressed, before he gets up and leaves mid-song.
Jaoui’s attention to the role of gender in these subtle shiftings render the terrain even more complex. While Karine and Sylvia are possessed of a more refined, self-effacing sensitivity (indeed, they come to Lolita’s defense most often, the men dismissing her as “a pain”), the lack of healthy regard for their physical selves admits other insecurities (Karine worries about her weight and vigorously regulates the eating habits of her young daughter). Etienne’s and Pierre’s machismo (both frequently remark on the loveliness of passing females, and leave child-rearing and house-work to their wives), on the other hand, is revealed as the flip-side to their delicate egos, which need constant, careful tending. And though Karine and Sylvia both spend a good deal of time and energy bucking up and reassuring their husbands, they are flippantly disregarded when they need support in return.
The director’s sympathies clearly fall in line with the women, but Jaoui’s great talent lies in her ability to convey the shortcomings and emotional trade-offs each of these bracingly human creatures is willing to make, with compassion rather than ridicule, allowing us to understand rather than condemn any of them. While the ending vaguely disappoints with its run-of-the-mill “realization” scene (which, of course, involves running, as well as, in this case, heavy bicycling), it’s still suitably imperfect and unresolved enough that the symphonic whole stays in balance.
[Kristi Mitsuda is a frequent contributor to Reverse Shot and maintains the blog artflickchick.com. She is currently searching for a day job where she can put her cinemaniacal tendencies to good use.]
By Nicolas Rapold
The French title of “Look At Me” (Comme Une Image) might evoke the irony of a modern world where images have become the standard for reality, and in Jaoui’s ensemble, Lolita indeed does not fit Procrustean media ideals, overlooked both in her careers in performance and by a father who’s remarried down (about 30 years down, to be precise). But the forces that beset Lolita — and the film’s cannily intertwined artistic and familial milieux — are old as the hills: selfishness and its versatile group counterpart, cliquishness. And indeed Jaoui displays the greatest skill in tracing the intersections of social and professional circles, with all the enthusiasm of someone arguing a class allegory (while herself safely anchored, as in The Taste of Others, in a fulcral role, Lolita’s music teacher, Sylvie).
Fundamentally, the film never abandons the dynamic of its overture scene of people trying to get into a night club. If you’re not charmed by the well-edited roundelay, Jaoui and screenwriting partner Bacri risk monotony in the variations on getting in: a daughter seeking acceptance; Sylvie’s husband, the thinly written second-tier author, slouching towards selling out; and in a supreme and mysterious example, the father’s resigned sidekick, a human addendum straight out of Shakespeare’s comedies. If I sound ambivalent about the film’s charms, you’re right, even as I wish that other films would aspire to this non-Hollywood model of seamlessness.
But though Jaoui’s tendency towards schematics (worse in “The Taste of Others” but somehow more charming) stacks the deck, the film is redeemed by a stirring optimistic faith in the community provided by art. Best heard and not seen, this current is constant in the bracing music bridges that bind the material more effectively than any plot. And it lives in the contrast between Cassard’s backbiting literary set, a rarefied peak best ignored, and Lolita’s heartfelt choral group. True to Latinate linguistic roots, the amateurs win our hearts over the professionals, and, for all the film’s own sophisticated craft, the best moment erupts spontaneously when, exploring an echoic provincial church, Sylvie bursts into song.
[Nicolas Rapold, a film writer based in New York, is a frequent contributor to Reverse Shot.]
By Michael Koresky
It’s strange that some find Agnès Jaoui’s films guilty of succumbing to the very class envy and pseudo erudition that they so delicately criticize. That seems like an easy out for critics who do not wish to examine the delicate balance between crassness and the feigned sophistication of social customs that seems to be Agnès Jaoui’s prime inspiration; as with “The Taste of Others,” a cluster of people, family and friends, ex-lovers and romantic pursuits, bounce off of each other with both abandon and heartache.
The cynical backlashers who rightfully yet far too viciously tore “Sideways” a new one, upon its endless reaping of awards, for its own supposed classist self-defeatism will probably chalk up “Look at Me”‘s Cannes success (Jaoui and partner Jean-Pierre Bacri won best screenplay last year) to the same short-sightedness of ivory tower critics. But it’s far too easy to look at the big picture without focusing on the little details — slight grimaces, forehead creases, darting glances — that make up Jaoui’s deceptively simple world.
What’s most impressive about Jaoui’s tapestry is her ability to create narrative crescendos with the greatest of ease, character sea changes that occur within the bat of an eye. The glorious, wordless climax of “The Taste of Others,” in which actress Anne Alvaro spots her derided paramour Bacri in the audience while bowing at curtain call, and pure joy flashes across her face, is echoed here in its extreme opposite: Bacri, now as an impossible-to-please father, sneaks out the back door during his daughter’s voice recital. Jaoui doesn’t play the scene as a momentous narrative turn, yet we know that the repercussions will be drastic. Heartbreaking without every calling attention to its own mechanics, “Look at Me” furthers Jaoui’s endeavor to expose human callousness with the gentlest of touches.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well as the assistant editor and frequent contributor of Film Comment.]