Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 27, 2005 4:35 pm 
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Comedy of bad manners, good dialogue, and a plot that fizzles

11 April 2005

Agnès Jaoui's ably written but weakly plotted comedy of manners Look at Me (Comme une image) Étienne (Jean-Pierre Bacri) is a famous French writer and publisher with a young, thin, beautiful blonde wife named Karine (Virginie Desarnauts). His daughter Lolita (Marylou Berry) is a fat girl with a placid Mediterranean face. That face is more accepting than the role implies, because Lolita is always either pouting at the world for not having made her thin, beautiful, and devastatingly talented or dissolving in tears at some new act of unkindness from Étienne. He's a real 'conard' -- a big-time jerk. He pays little attention to anyone but himself and ignores as much as possible Lolita's diligent efforts to train as a singer and actress and be somebody. Étienne, who vies with Lolita to be the movie's most unappealing person, is verbally cruel to Karine too, always with the excuse that he's "just joking." There's also a writer named Pierre (Laurent Grévill) who wallows in self-disgust. His wife Sylvia -- ably played by Jaoui herself and ultimately the movie's most sympathetic and morally perceptive character -- is Lolita's singing teacher. Should we be surprised that she doubts both Lolita's talents and her own? Lolita complains that people are only nice to her because they want favors from her father, and that proves true at first of Sylvia, who refuses to go to a concert Lolita's in till she learns who Lolita's father is and realizes he can help her husband. (Actually Pierre's fortunes improve without help from Lolita or Étienne.) There's also a forgettable boyfriend of Lolita's, who appears and disappears, and a new boy on the scene, Sébastien, whose original name was Raschid and who wants to start a magazine with some friends. Like Lolita, Sébastien feels that nobody has ever given him a fair shake. Lolita's too self-absorbed to realize that Sébastien really likes her for herself.

Look at Me is a study of misbehavior and self-loathing. Nobody, including Étienne, whose creative spark has gone out, has any pleasure being who they are. When people aren't pouting or wailing they're going off on somebody else. This even includes the taxi driver in the opening scene, who's so rude to Lolita you'd think he works for her father. The next sequence is a reception in which Étienne is the star and Lolita can't even get in. Bystanders ignore Sébastien when he falls down with a seizure on the street where Lolita's waiting. She puts her coat over him, and that's how they meet.

My friend said Look at Me reminded him of Eric Rohmer's films because it had a lot of good French talk and not much action. But Rohmer would never feature a 'conard' like Étienne as central figure, though it might add interest if he did. Rohmer's characters are always looking for lovers and always look good and act nice -- two qualities conspicuously lacking here.

Given that Lolita's ignored by Étienne, it's a bit odd that Édith would court her favor: sometimes the Bacri-Jaoui team is so eager to make everybody look neurotic, they strain credulity; and since Bacri and Jaoui used to be married and this isn't their first co-project, ambivalence about the characters they play and create may be built into the relationship. Bacri may be a little too famous himself for the role of a famous man. The movie partakes of some of the uncomfortable self-referential qualities of husband and wife team Yvan Attal and Charlotte Gainsbourg's movie, My Wife Is an Actress.

At times there is something artificial, even confused, about the story setup. While the meandering plot and ensemble acting may be in the great tradition of films like Renoir's Rules of the Game, the ironic, cruel, ultimately narrow focus of the action of Look at Me leaves a very different taste in the mouth. A film whose climax is a vocal concert in a small provincial church may need a little more than two tentative lovers as a finale.

Perhaps it's a strength of the piece that Étienne never apologizes to Lolita or to Édith (or to anybody else), but it's a little hard to see where Look at Me is going. One French paper, L'Humanité, commented that comedies of manners with incisive dialogue but shaky rhythm are a Jaoui/Bacri trademark now. The movie tends to make its points over and over and its spoiled, self-centered artistic and literary people may seem quite a bore. But as a portrait of certain kinds of (French?) bad manners the movie is both detailed and balanced: these people certainly are bores, but they're never demonized.

Some kind of decisive plot development could have turned this sour comedy into a strong movie. You'd never expect, or want, anybody in a Rohmer film to get killed, but Chabrol or Hitchcock would have done Étienne in early on, and we might have liked to see that. Why should Étienne be allowed to linger to the end?

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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