Look at Me (Comme une image) (France, 2004)
At first glance, Look at Me appears to be a standard French drama about a dysfunctional family. All the elements are in place: the domineering father whose celebrity status has made him indifferent to the needs of his family, the meek trophy wife, the overweight daughter who craves her father's unavailable affection, and several outsiders who find themselves drawn into an unstable orbit around these people. Yet first glances can be deceiving. Yes, this is a dysfunctional family drama, but it's also something more profound. Look at Me takes aim at the common human character flaw of self-absorption and examines how we no longer seem to communicate with one another. And, as is typical of her work, director Agnès Jaoui (she co-wrote Un Air de Famille for director Cedric Kapisch) gives us plenty of smart dialogue and accents her drama with black humor.
Look at Me stars Jean-Pierre Bacri as Étienne Cassard, the aforementioned father. Bacri co-wrote the script with Jaoui, who is on-screen as Sylvia Millet, a voice teacher who becomes enmeshed in the Cassard family's struggles. Bacri and Jaoui have enjoyed a long and fruitful on-screen and off-screen collaboration, but this may be their swansong. According to what I have heard, they experienced an acrimonious break-up during the making of Look at Me, and may not be working with each other again.
Étienne is a star author, whose every new work is awaited with baited breath by an adoring public. He absorbs adulation like it's his right, and treats friends and family members with equal portions indifference and contempt. His daughter, Lolita (Marilou Berry), who forms the film's emotional center, has a beautiful voice, but Étienne cannot see past her physical appearance. She is overweight, and therefore an object of ridicule. His second wife, Karine (Virginie Desarnauts), fares little better than his daughter. He shows her no affection and often makes nasty jokes at her expense. She's a classic trophy wife - beautiful, half his age, and not worth engaging (at least in his opinion) in conversation.
Enter Sylvia and her lazy writer-husband, Pierre (Laurent Grévill). She is Lolita's vocal coach. At first, she is impatient with the young woman - until she learns that Lolita could provide her with an opportunity to meet Étienne. The meeting happens, and Pierre and Sylvia end up joining the Cassards on a trip to the country (shades of Chekhov). While there, a lot of things come into the open, and wounds are laid bare. There is resolution at the end, but no real closure.
With the exception of Étienne, who is an outright bastard, all of the characters are presented using vivid shades of gray. But the universal characteristic, as intimated by the English-language title, is self-absorption. Every individual in this film sees himself or herself as being at the center of the universe. Some, like Sylvia, are less in the grip of this character flaw. Others, like Étienne, have developed narcissism and self-obsession to a high art. The most sympathetic of Look at Me's protagonists is Lolita. Despite her impressive voice, her poor self-image, bolstered by her weight, have made her timid, and her father's callous attitude towards her has only re-enforced her feeling.
Jaoui's observation that people today do not communicate well is not original, but it is presented intelligently. Combine self-absorption with a reliance upon impersonal methods of interaction (the cell phone, for example), and this is a recipe for a society in which we no longer hear each other. We speak, but we do not listen. When someone else it talking, we're busy figuring out what we are going to say next.
Although Look at Me is not a farce, there are plenty of opportunities for laughter. Characters who are self-absorbed rather than self-aware give writers opportunities to highlight the absurd, and that's what Jaoui does. As is almost universally the case in French productions, the acting is top notch. Bacri, who has played this kind of character on previous occasions, presents Étienne as a dislikable, but believable, man. The other standout is newcomer Marilou Berry, whose portrayal of Lolita touches the heart without becoming maudlin. The dialogue sparkles, and the development of the story, in addition to recalling Chekhov, may have some cineastes thinking of Eric Rohmer. (Although, as good as Jaoui's gift for writing speech is, she hasn't attained Rohmer's level of mastery.)
Look at Me is a fine motion picture - simple, direct, and offering truth. It is for a particular audience - those who like films that concentrate on character rather than plot, and who aren't put off by subtitles. Look at Me is French in the way it is presented (when we think of a "French movie," this is the kind of film that will jump to mind), but the themes it embodies are universal.
Look at Me (Comme une image) (France, 2004)
Cast: Marilou Berry, Agnès Jaoui, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Laurent Grévill, Virginie Desarnauts, Keine Bouhiza, Grégoire Oestermann
Screenplay: Agnès Jaoui, Jean-Pierre Bacri
Cinematography: Philippe Rombi
Music: Stéphane Fontaine
U.S. Distributor: Sony Classics
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