Look at Me (Comme une image) (France, 2004) * * * 1/2
D: Agnes Jaoui
The whole point in naming this blog Kill the Snark was to underline that my chief interest is in films that move me, films that penetrate the kind of snarkiness and cynicism that taints so much of film criticism. I want to celebrate films that require study and punish impatience. Films that understand stillness. Yes, I want to celebrate Andrei Tarkovsky, Robert Bresson, and Bela Tarr, but even in more mainstream films you can find these qualities; in that genre, Look at Me is the kind of film I'm after.
Written and directed by Agnes Jaoui, who plays singing instructor Sylvia in the film, it's an ensemble character portrait, although the title most obviously relates to Lolita (Marilou Berry), the overweight, overambitious daughter of renowned author Etienne Cassard (Jean-Pierre Bacri, not playing a character entirely different than his in The Housekeeper). Lolita is a promising singer in a choral group taught by Sylvia, with whom she eagerly seeks private lessons. Sylvia is annoyed by the overtures, but changes her mind dramatically when she learns that she's Etienne Cassard's daughter. She's an admirer of Cassard, and her husband, Pierre (Laurent Grevill), is a struggling writer who could use the contact to draw attention to his new novel. Lolita, the product of Etienne's first marriage, has a troubled relationship with her father: he seldom has time for her, constantly refers to her with would-be affection as his "big" girl, and seems to have more interest in his young wife, Karine (Virginie Desarnauts), and their child. Nevertheless, being the daughter of a famous personality has its priveleges. She fools herself into thinking that her "boyfriend" Mathieu has a further interest than merely making an important professional contact in Etienne, neglecting the one who's truly interested, in a bit of the callous selfishness that's on display from nearly every character in the film.
So Lolita is not blameless, and this is not an afterschool special. It is, I think, a study of self-interest to the point of cruel disregard. At one end of the spectrum is Etienne Cassard, whose unlikely introduction--the last to pile into a cab with Karine and Lolita, and disproportionately older to those two who could be sisters, his bald spot for a second dipping toward the camera--he puts the obnoxious cabbie in line so quickly that the man soon addresses him as "sir." Some of this has, naturally, rubbed off on Lolita; as much as she dislikes her arrogant father ("I don't hate him," she says, "I just want to kill him."), she also admires his power. The constantly interrupting ring of cell phones forms an audio motif, and hers rings as often as her father's; both use it as an excuse to ignore whoever is actually in front of them. And that is an effective technique--note Etienne's assistant, who claims that Etienne saved his life (he may have become a terrorist), but nevertheless looks withered from the constant casual insults. There's a price to pay in becoming a professional sycophant, hoping to leech some of the fame.
Sylvia's husband Pierre is delighted at his fortune, but watch that delight slowly dwindle over the course of the film--you can see him studying Etienne in the same way Lolita studies Sylvia. Etienne Cassard is Pierre's instructor, but not in the art of writing. Pierre begins to appraise women with the subtle lechery of Etienne's, and begins to avoid friends who can no longer help him climb to the top. Still, when he becomes stranded on an outrageous Graham Norton-styled talk show, he seems helpless, if not terrified, among the scantily-clad dancers. But it's impossible to feel sorry for him in the film's conclusion, when loyalties are tested and Pierre chooses poorly.
But even though no one is faultless, some come through when it counts. Sebastien, Lolita's crush, wants to impress Karine (Mrs. Cassard), but he has a deeper affection and loyalty for Lolita. Sylvia is subtly aware of her own hypocrisy when she agrees to private tutoring for the student she's always disliked, just to get closer to her famous father; on the other hand, over a weekend in the country she forms a bond with the girl, and in the final scenes, potentially sacrifices everything for her. But Karine may be the conscience of the film. She briefly leaves her husband because she sees him for who he is: a selfish monster. Karine, most unexpectedly, is the least selfish character in the film, and even when she returns to the household, it's for Etienne and the children, not for her own sake. Sebastien sees this. Lolita still resents her.
All of these motivations and stories are worth drawing into the open because, despite what other reviews for the film might suggest, this is not just a story about an overweight girl and the people around her who won't "look at" her. Lolita is the most sympathetic character in the film, but she is not free from selfishness. The key is that when she hurts others, we understand what motivates her, and we empathize even more. She has deep wounds, and they drive her to some awful actions.
Rare does the film contain a moment that doesn't feel completely convincing; and while it is not so rigorously formalized, it did remind me of the films of the Dardennes brothers (L'Enfant). Ultimately, how refreshing to see it isn't a cynical film. And while the film ends on a positive resolution, there are no false redemptions. Lolita's father will always be a bastard. Pierre may come around, but he may not. That a few manage to escape this plague is inspiring enough.