Look At Me Paints Portraits Of Beautiful People With All Their Lovely Flaws In Tact
All happy fathers and daughters resemble one another; each is unhappy in his and her own way. “She’s angry in general,” Étienne Cassard sighs of his daughter in Look at Me (Comme une image). The celebrated middle-aged writer and publisher Cassard (Jean-Pierre Bacri) isn’t referring to his youngest daughter with his beautiful, much younger second wife, Karine (Virginie Desarnauts). He’s exasperatedly telling potential new novelist recruit Pierre (Laurent Grévill) about his older, adult daughter Lolita (Marilou Berry) over a business lunch. Trim but balding over the crown, Cassard’s vanity is surpassed only by his own disinterest in all things not him. He is the walking center of his own universe, and he’s too close to his ego’s gravitational pull to notice when he’s being rude, neglectful, mean, or just plain inappropriate. “She’s anger on wheels,” he complains. “At the whole world—especially me.”
Given that Look at Me deals with modern, middle-class Parisians and their very well-mannered, good-looking, and smartly outfitted foibles, it’s easy to assume director Agnès Jaoui is treading in those acutely observed Eric Rohmer waters of bourgeois ennui, where husbands and wives calmly discuss who should leave their lovers first and why, but get most upset when the confessional commiseration means having to eat the escalopes de veau à l’Estragon cold. So you know you’re in for a very different comedy of manners when Jaoui cuts directly from Cassard’s complaining to Lolita and her friend Sébastien (Keine Bouhiza) walking down the street and him asking her why she’s so mad at her father. “I’m not,” she replies with bored sincerity. “I’d just like to kill him.”
Jaoui, working off a script co-written with her real-life husband, Bacri, crafts a ribald contemporary farce set to slow boil, where conversations are interrupted by an almost slapstick shtick of ringing cell phones, where underlings and hopefuls fawningly eat interpersonal merde to placate the narcissistic Cassard, and where even the most benign encounter can turn absurd or vicious in a single glance. Lolita cuts the most sympathetic arc through this barbed sophistication. An unskinny young woman sticking with her voice lessons in hopes of a singing career that her own lack of self-confidence prevents from ever starting, Lolita feels like the proverbial third wheel wherever she is. She gets abandoned outside the premiere party of a movie based on one of her father’s novels until Karine comes to smooth her entry. Her father never refrains from vocally recognizing an attractive young woman, which makes his cutesy intimacy of calling her his “big girl” register like comments about her weight. And from pseudo-boyfriends to aspiring writers, she always feels people only deem her interesting when they find out who her father is.
Lolita confesses this last part to her vocal instructor Sylvia (Jaoui), who—being Pierre’s wife—is just as guilty of that manipulation, but is starting to bridle against it after witnessing how much of a heel Cassard can be, though it does take a while. Cassard invites Pierre and Sylvia for a weekend at his country estate, where Cassard can woo Pierre to leave his current agency and Sylvia can inspect the church where Lolita’s amateur vocal group plans to perform. Everybody plays the dutiful part—Sylvia feigns interest in Lolita’s concert, even though she’s already confessed to Pierre that Lolita hasn’t the talent to succeed as a vocalist; Cassard’s yes-man assistant stumbles over trying not to say or do anything to contradict his employer; and even Sébastien, brought along because Lolita’s “boyfriend” Mathieu (Julien Baumgartner) couldn’t make it, plays the dejected beau once Mathieu informs Lolita of a nearby party where he’ll be. Come the holiday’s end, everybody has tired of the niceties.
Fortunately, Jaoui permits her characters to achieve these minor catharses as nonchalantly as they do everything else. Look at Me unwinds so naturally because, despite its Parisian literary-world milieu, it feels so unmannered. What these people say and do never rings with the touch of the artful—they bicker with petty insults and say those impishly immature things everybody does. And everybody eventually gets cast in unappealing and comical light. Jaoui gets a hearty chuckle from her character dancing with a young man to a midtempo Spanish instrumental at the party Lolita attends, and when it segues into House of Pain’s “Jump Around” and the youngsters proceed to do just that, Sylvia looks and feels like the no-longer-20-year-old woman she is. (Elsewhere, she wryly has Cassard playing a recording of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” the one time his youngest daughter erupts into hysterical, inconsolable crying, drolly spotlighting his self-absorption.) And it’s these subtly witty nuances that gives Look at Me a depth that escapes the talk-show neediness of its American title. “Comme une image” is more closely translated as “like a picture,” and as with photos, what looks upstanding and serene in a still merely freezes what may be dysfunctional, strained, and just plain ridiculous once that surface is scratched.