Look at Me
Intimate French flick explores relationships of all types
By Devin D. O'Leary
Look at Me
Directed by Agnès Jaoui
Cast: Marilou Berry, Agnès Jaoui, Jean-Pierre Bacri
When American movies explore relationships, they are virtually without exception romantic and revolve around meeting cute, breaking up and getting back together. Fortunately, the Europeans--who have been doing romance so long they've grown bored with it--are happy to pick up our slack and explore adult relationships that involve something other than crashing some large public gathering and proposing to Drew Barrymore. The French-spawned Look at Me is a perfect example. The more of its slim story that unfolds, the more insightful it seems.
Look at Me is the work of longtime actress, writer and occasional director Agnès Jaoui (The Taste of Others). It is an intimate, terribly perceptive look at two groups of people whose respective gravities cause them to fall into orbit with one another with both good and bad repercussions.
At the center of the first group is Lolita Cassard (Marilou Berry, the Gallic answer to Ricki Lake), a frumpy, insecure 20-year-old who can't seem to figure out her purpose in life. (Currently, she's decided to be an opera singer.) Part of Lolita's scattershot anger and lack of purpose is caused by her father, Etienne Cassard (Jean-Pierre Bacri), a famous novelist and publisher who's grown lazy and self-centered thanks to a fat bank account, a young trophy wife and the adulation of a lot of snobby Frenchmen.
At the center of the second group is Sylvia Miller (Jaoui, doing triple duty), who happens to be Lolita's singing teacher. She long ago lost faith in her own talents and doesn't hold much hope for Lolita. The one person she does believe in is her husband, Pierre (Laurent Grevill), an unsuccessful writer with three unknown books under his belt.
When Lolita casually mentions that Monsieur Cassard was impressed with Pierre's latest work, Sylvia seizes on the opportunity to boost her husband's career. It's not an entirely mercenary move, but it is one that sends several people's orbits crashing into one another. Sylvia grows closer to Lolita--which is probably a good thing--and Pierre grows closer to Etienne--which is probably a bad thing.
Look at Me is a subtle study in how the stupid, selfish little things we do affect our relationships with others. No one here is beating their spouse or cheating on their boyfriend. But each person is so distracted by their own faults that they fail to perform the titular advisement and simply take notice of the human beings standing next to them.
For example, poor unhappy Lolita, forever chasing her father's favor, throws all her emotions into a relationship with a “boyfriend” who barely notices she exists. At the same time, she ignores a potential connection with soft-spoken journalism student Sébastien (Keine Bouhiza), partially because she believes that--like everybody else--he's simply cozying up to her to meet her famous father.
There are moments of pain and humor scattered throughout Look at Me. Few of them have great dramatic resonance. Each is barely begun before it's interrupted by an annoying cell phone call or other modern intrusion. In aggregate, they are little more than everyday observances, ripped from some glum French version of “Seinfeld.” But, examined individually, they are moments of severe human understanding. Even the smallest of interactions here is shown with clarity and sympathy.
Take Sylvia's relationship with Edith, an older friend. Their interaction is marked by a pattern of miscommunication. The time they spend together on screen is a matter of mere minutes, yet we understand their relationship deeply. Edith makes occasional scatterbrained mistakes (missing a lunch meeting, for example). Instead of owning up to them, however, she deflects her errors, blaming the results on simple misunderstanding. Sylvia eventually calls her to task for it, holding a mirror up to the woman and enumerating her faults. Edith doesn't notice how her actions affect those around her, and Sylvia can't forgive her for it. Not so surprisingly, this causes a rift which fractures the friendship. It's a minor moment, but it's emblematic of the entire film. Everyone shares the blame here.
The film is co-written by Bacri, who collaborated with wife/costar Jaoui on The Taste of Others, Family Resemblance, Smoking/No Smoking and Kitchen with Apartment. Expect to see more from this duo in the future. Keenly observed and written with an admirable economy (helped in no small part by the fine cast), Look at Me may lack the plot-driven punch of 50 First Dates, but it's a must-see for students of human nature.
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