Look At Me
2004Director: Agnes Jaoui
Cast: Marilou Berry, Jean-Pierre Bacri
he most enjoyable thing about Look At Me, writer-director Agnès Jaoui's beautiful new French film, is the story itself. Sure, it’s not especially original, inventive or quirky. It is not heart-rending, bone-chilling, or action-packed. But it is thoroughly engaging. The narrative twists steadily but delicately forward from minute one through to minute 111, in a manner that appears—well, how else to say this?—perfectly natural. In other words, while exquisitely and intricately plotted, Look At Me, bears no evidence of its plotters. Mon Dieu!
The film features Lolita Cassard (Marilou Berry): 20 years old, overweight, good-hearted, an aspiring singer with a beautiful voice. Everyone wants something from Lolita’s father Etienne Cassard (Jean-Pierre Bacri), a famous, wealthy, respected novelist and powerful publisher who also happens to be a self-obsessed and often-uncaring scowler. She hates him (and her beautiful stepmother) yet remains desperate for the attention and approval that he’ll never give. Enter Lolita’s trusted mentor, her voice teacher Sylvia (Jaoui). Sylvia’s husband Pierre (Laurent Grévill), meanwhile, is a struggling author for whom an acquaintance with Etienne would do an awful lot of good.
"So the halibut gave you the runs, huh? I guess I'll stay away from the fish, then..."
What proceeds in Look at Me is a touching portrait of people trying, and yearning terribly, to connect. But when they fail continually through most of the film to do just that, it is interpreted by most not as a sign of fate’s heavy hand, but instead, as simply another reason to keep on trying. As a result, the film allows for a delicate balance—stark realism blends seamlessly with a warm humanism.
The engine that drives all of Look At Me’s forward motion is its small constellation of complicated people wrapped up in complicated relationships. The half-dozen or so main characters that occupy our attention and jockey endlessly for one another’s, are all imperfect, full of worry, and prone to making more than a few lousy decisions. That is to say, they are human. While there may be some pretty nice folks and a few nasty jerks, there are no traditional heroes or villains here. Instead, they all struggle genuinely and so completely at life that it is hard not realize a simple truth: those we identify with can be quite the pain in the ass, too; those we love to hate deserve redemption, as well.
"They said they wouldn't publish those pictures, damn them!"
It is not insignificant, either, that most of the film’s characters are artists in one way or another. Lolita, the daughter, as a singer, is the young aspirant. Sylvia and Pierre, the couple, both have talent and experience, but feel as if they are stuck and muddied somewhere in the middle. Etienne, the father, as a writer, has reached the mountaintop, and can’t stand the view.
I couldn’t help but think of that brilliantly conceived Monty Python skit, “Novel Writing Live From Wessex” in which two color commentators analyze Thomas Hardy in the midst of crafting his latest work as if it were a baseball game: “Here on the first day of his new novel, [he] has crossed out the only word he has written so far, and he's gazing off into space. Oh, ohh, there he signed his name again!” “It looks like ‘Tess of the D'Urbervilles’ all over again.”
The skit illustrates the absurdity of trying to convey the creative process in tangible terms. Look At Me realizes this and wisely uses each’s artistic struggles, not as the crux of its personal conflict and not as some analog for the great human condition, but rather, for what it really is—an element of the character’s identity. They use their art as personal touchstones, to define success and divine acceptance. Art, here, is not a filter through which one examines the drama; it is an inextricable part of that drama.