Jaoui’s “Look at Me”; A Brilliantly Observed Social Comedy
by Peter Brunette
[EDITORS NOTE: Peter Brunette reviewed “Look at Me” for indieWIRE at Cannes last year, the film opens in theaters in the United States today.]
Among a competition that has featured largely impenetrable, overlong, artistically self-indulgent films, Agnes Jaoui‘s “Comme une Image” (Look At Me) stands out. It actually deals with recognizably human characters, paints a picture of a contemporary Paris that is at once exotic and completely recognizable (the high-end publishing world), and explores conundrums about interpersonal relationships that audiences around the world will connect with. It’s even witty, acerbic, and often hilarious. Given all this, it’s sure to be panned by many of the purists who flock to Cannes every year looking for rare, audience-proof gems.
Jaoui also directed “The Taste of Others,” her well-received first film that came out in France in 1999. She’s a brilliant actress as well as an accomplished screenwriter (she’s written for such cinema luminaries as Alain Resnais) and, as such, meshes perfectly with the identical talents possessed by her co-star and co-writer — for this and the other films she has written — Jean-Pierre Bacri.
Bacri plays a self-absorbed writer named Etienne Cassard. His daughter Lolita (Marilou Berry) is 20 years old, overweight, and desperate for her father’s attention. Alas, Etienne can’t even spare any time for or lend a sympathetic ear to his gorgeous trophy wife Karine (Virginie Desarnauts), so Lolita, a far cry from her fictional namesake, doesn’t stand a chance. She also believes that everyone who has anything to do with her is merely trying to get closer to her famous father, which is usually the case. One of these people is Sylvia (Agnes Jaoui), Lolita’s singing coach and choral director. Her husband Pierre (Laurent Grevill), a frustrated, lesser-known writer also finds it to his advantage to cozy up to Etienne, who is more than happy to reciprocate when Pierre’s latest book gets a smashing review. The final figure in the puzzle is Sebastien (Keine Bohiza) a student of North African descent who — this will probably not surprise you — genuinely likes Lolita for herself though she refuses to believe it.
No new aesthetic ground is broken here, and one does not come away from watching the film with precious new insights about the human condition. It is, however, a brilliantly observed social comedy of a certain fascinating Parisian milieu, and the delightfully witty and occasionally nasty script is honed razor-sharp. (The send-up of the French intellectual talk-show that Pierre appears on is especially rich.) What’s more, since most of the people involved cut their first teeth in the theater, the acting is top-notch and meshes seamlessly with the ultra-arch dialogue. Bacri, especially, emerges as the obnoxious egotist you love to hate and Jaoui’s nervous, edgy performance makes her character unforgettable. Bacri and Jaoui have also had the good sense to provide a climax that centers around a performance of classical music, a gesture that was undoubtedly quite calculated on their part, but virtually never a bad idea in an art film.
Seen by itself, away from the hothouse for rare and super-delicate artistic orchids that the Cannes festival often wants to see itself as, this film may turn out to be completely conventional and not very special at all. At this point, however, it’s like manna in the desert.