[EDITORS NOTE: Erica Abeel spoke with Agnes Jaoui about "Look At Me" for indieWIRE, the film will be released on DVD this week (August 9, 2005).]
They co-write the script and co-star in the film, which she then directs -- and to judge by awards reaped and delighted viewers, Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri have a good thing going. The multi-gifted pair came to notice with the Oscar nominated "The Taste of Others," a delicious comedy of manners about two unlikely lovers who leap economic and cultural barriers. Now comes the second Jaoui/Bacri venture, "Look at Me" ("Comme Une Image," but the French title resists translation), which arrives with some fanfare after capturing best screenplay at Cannes and opening this year's New York Film Festival.
Another finely calibrated comedy of manners, "Look" also focuses on a father-daughter story. Lolita (Marilou Berry) is a zoftig twenty year old, who's tyrannized by the whippet-thin feminine ideal, and carries a grudge against the world for making her invisible. Above all, she yearns to register in the vision of her father Etienne (Bacri), a grotesquely self-involved publishing macher married to a slender (but good-hearted) beauty not much older than his daughter. Lolita finds some fragile sense of worth in studying voice with Sylvia (Jaoui), the wife of a novelist who's struggling to break out his book. Though Sylvia is the film's moral center, she finds herself sucked into promoting Lolita's artistic ambitions, once she learns Etienne's can boost her husband's.
Part Chekhov, part Woody Allen, and all French, "Look" is primarily an investigation of star-fucking, the whole thing lubricated by classical music, from Monteverdi to Mozart to Schubert. The film plumbs the world of publishing, yet this wry comedy could be set in any elite sub-culture where people grovel and suck up as they mount the status chain.
indieWIRE interviewed Jaoui, when she was here for the NYFF -- and suffering from a nasty cold -- in the shabbily charming, sadly defunct Mayflower Hotel, which has long welcomed foreign filmmakers. Though it's often rumored that Jaoui and Bacri were at one time romantically involved, Jaoui declined to discuss the subject, calling them "creative partners."
indieWIRE: What was the starting point for the script of "Look at Me"?
Agnes Jaoui: We'd been wanting for some time to deal with a father/daughter relationship. And there's a personal element: my father had a wife who was roughly my age. We also wanted to talk about power - not from the hotshot's perspective, but those who grovel and tolerate it. During a film festival in the States, I once spent time with Guillaume Depardieu, son of Gerard - and you've no idea how rude people were. Not a minute passed without their saying, your father this, your father that, etc. It was ghastly and I really sympathized with him. It was as if he didn't exist.
iW: Have you yourself been on the wrong end of that dynamic?
AJ: Absolutely. When I met Jean-Pierre, he was famous, I was not. Really, people were treading on my toes to get to him. I didn't exist. Now the same people who ignored me are all over me.
iW: One of the striking aspects of your film is that it doesn't merely use music on the soundtrack - the film itself plays like a form of music. How did you achieve that?
AJ: I'm delighted by your question because, as you might suspect, I adore music. And in this film I wanted to share that. I find that what writing, directing and acting all have in common is a sense of rhythm. It's no coincidence that the greatest actors, especially comedians, are also musicians. Chaplin, Woody Allen. In France, Louis de Funes. Jean-Pierre [Bacri] sings very well.
The plays of Eugene Labiche [a 19th century writer of light comedy] read like scores that gave the actors precise notes to mark the rhythm. His writing was so musical, it went ta -- da da da DA, ta -- da da da Da. What distinguishes great directors from the mediocre ones is a personal rhythm - like that of Fellini or Nikita Mikhalkov -- that you recognize, as you would listening a great conductor's.
iW: What's your own connection to music?
AJ: I've been performing music since I was seventeen. I wouldn't have had the discipline to become a professional singer - it's like sports: you can't drink or smoke. But for the past three years, I've been working with the vocal ensemble that's in the film. I use their voices in the choral scenes -- and my own -- but Marilou Berry is dubbed. I didn't want too perfect a sound and didn't want to clean up the imperfections, since we're amateurs. In fact, I find the imperfections moving.
iW: The way your film is edited also suggests a piece of music.
AJ: I used a new editor, Francois Gedigier, very refined and sensitive, who completely understood the musical aspect. He was a lot more pro-active than the editor on my first film -- even bossy. At moments I felt it was becoming his film. We fought at times. I was moved to see him so involved, but [she laughs] -- it was my film after all.
iW: How was working on this second film different from the first?
AJ: The script was harder to write than the other. In "Taste" I maybe cut one sentence; in this one I cut twenty minutes from the page. I was also a better filmmaker than before. I knew it was possible to shoot more than I was going to use, and that we'd adjust it in editing. I adore editing -- it's my favorite moment in the whole process. Because it resembles writing. At the same time, it's very painful the first time you see your movie. It looks like a monster, all flaws and missteps. It's not alive. Every director goes through that experience. You just want to go out and get drunk.
iW: When do you start to edit?
AJ: While we shoot, after three weeks. Then, of course, there's the final edit. I found in this film there was too much music, I had to cut a lot. I discovered the right balance by screening the film for friends.
iW: You have a somewhat consistent persona from one film to the next. Manie from "Taste" and Sylvia from this one both form a sympathetic compassionate center. What attracts you to that role?
AJ: Actually, Sylvia's a lot more wily than Manie. She's so ambitious for her husband she forgets her values. I guess each time we write a part like that, I can't help but choose it.
iW: Because you're naturally decent?
AJ: Oh no. I'm very egocentric and narcissistic, but I'm working hard on it. Maybe it's the person I'd like to be... I don't know. Maybe it's because I can't trust another actress to convey what I want to say in the film.
iW: Could you describe your writing process with Jean-Pierre Bacri? Do you sit down at the same computer?
AJ: We don't have computers - don't even know how to use one. Truly! We work with notebook and pencil.
iW: What's the hardest part of directing yourself?
AJ: Trying to avoid exhaustion.
iW: The character of Etienne is funny, because predictably odious. Did you try to find a "softer" element to counterbalance the film's darkness?
AJ: I think it's the civilizing effect of music. Usually I'm suspicious of groups, they can have a brutalizing effect. But music brings out what a human group can do best. When you sing with others, there's harmony -- true harmony -- and you produce something sublime.