Volume 17, Number 51 | May 13 - 19, 2005

Look at Me
Angelica Film Center
18 W. Houston St.
New York, NY 10012

Photo by Jean-Paul Dumas-Grillet/Corbis

Jean-Pierre Bacri, left, as Etienne and Marilou Berry as Lolita.

New French film delivers

Sharp look into familial relationships

By Leonard Quart

The French have always had a gift for making films that are charming, witty, literate, and utterly superficial. Films that on one level are pleasing, but are purely fluff that vanish from the viewer’s consciousness no more than a minute after leaving the cinema.

But director-writer and star Agnes Jaoui and her co-writer-and co-star Jean-Pierre Bacri’s Look at Me (which won the best screenplay prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival) is one smart, seductive, satisfying French film that is more than just shallow glitter and sophistication. (Their previous film, The Taste of Others, was equally clever and penetrating.)

It’s a psychologically astute, satiric character study of some members of the French artistic class dealing with the nature of their familial relationships, and the way the hunger for success alters behavior. Look at Me’s narrative is minimal, and the film is skillfully built around good talk and revealing close-ups rather than striking images or virtuosic editing.

If the film has a central character it’s Lolita (Marilou Berry), a young self-hating student singer: who obsesses about being overweight; has doubts about her singing talent; pursues young men who use and reject her; and rages at her appallingly self-involved father, Étienne (Jaoui’s real-life husband, Jean-Pierre Bacri). He’s an extremely successful novelist and literary power figure used to adulation and people toadying to him. He is also ill mannered, contemptuous, arrogant, and extremely intelligent. And he treats Lolita without a scintilla of sensitivity or care, calling her my “big girl” and incapable of even listening to her perform at a village concert, abruptly stalking out to jot down an idea for his next book.

All the performances are first rate, including Agnès Jaoui as Lolita’s perceptive, generally sympathetic and honest singing teacher, Sylvia. At the same time, she opportunistically tries to help her commercially unsuccessful, unhappy writer husband, Pierre’s (Laurent Grevill) career, by connecting with Etienne. Pierre’s sudden literary success does propel the couple into the same social circle as Étienne, and he begins to betray all he once stood for. He mistreats his long-time publisher Edith (Michele Moretti) and creative partner Felix (Jean-Pierre Lazzerni), and obsequiously curries favor with Étienne.

But it’s Lolita and her father who are the two most striking and intricate characters. Lolita is sullen and defensive, but she conveys innocence, youthful confusion, and the pathos of a daughter who painfully can never really get her father’s approval. And Étienne for all his casual nastininess emanates authority and even displays charm when he engages in imaginative play with his tantrum-throwing five-year-old daughter.

Look at Me may not be a psychologically profound work, but it’s sharply observant and humorous. And it succeeds in creating a gallery of believable art/world figures who never cross over the line into caricature. (The film never suggests that they are mere poseurs, they take their work seriously.) Here is one witty French film that delves beneath the surface, and left me hoping that the film would go on for a few more hours.

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