View Full Version : LOOK AT ME by AGNÈS JAOUI

Chris Knipp
04-10-2005, 08:00 PM

Comedy of bad manners, good dialogue, and a plot that fizzles

Review by Chris Knipp

In 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 disolving 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?


LOOK AT ME (Comme une image: U.S. release: April 1, 2005.
WORLD PREMIERE: Cannes, May 2004.

Review on Chris Knipp website (http://www.chrisknipp.com/writing/viewtopic.php?t=405)

04-24-2005, 06:16 PM
I've had a copy of this on video for a while now and will definitely have to get round to watching it soon. It's the same old problem though, too many films too little time.

Cheers Trev.

Chris Knipp
04-25-2005, 03:39 AM
Yes do watch it and let's discuss it. Plenty of people have seen it around here; the auditorium was quite packed when my friend and I went to see it because it has gotten good notices in the local papers, but nobody on FilmWurld seems to have a comment on it.

oscar jubis
05-15-2005, 01:35 AM
I loved this film and its flawed, only human characters. I think they are more complex and multifaceted than you describe them, but if you didn't like them, perhaps that's good reason for you not to like the film. I know there've been films I haven't liked mostly for the same reason. What we can possibly discuss is your regarding Look at Me as "weakly plotted". Can you expand?

05-18-2005, 08:17 PM
Look at Me is a disappointingly ordinary film from Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri, the makers of The Taste of Others, a witty and charming comedy of manners which was released stateside in 2001. Look at Me isn’t completely devoid of wit and allure, but those moments are too few and far between. The oft-repeated concepts of self-image and social expectations casually play out on our protagonist, a young over-weight woman named "Lolita" (Marilou Berry), who is the daughter of a rich and famous (and thus arrogant) novelist/publisher (Jean-Pierre Bacri). Lolita believes, and in many cases rightfully so, that people are only attracted to her because who her father is; her paranoia includes her two boyfriends, but not her choral teacher (Agnès Jaoui), who in fact does behave differently towards her after discovering who she is for the sake of her glum husband/writer (Laurent Grévill). The obvious problem of Lolita is palpable early on (she’s quite like her father), and the film repeats her predicament during various stretches for effect. Look at Me, in many cases, plays against our expectations (Lolita’s statuesque stepmother adores her/it only flirts with being a merry-go-round of romances), but the characters still seem trapped by the innocuous screenplay (which won the Best Screenplay prize at Cannes last year – just one of many highly questionable decisions made by QT and co.). Bacri and Jaoui perform their parts admirably (which shouldn’t be a surprise since they wrote them), but the rest of the cast members, including Marilou Berry, are only adequate at best. The performances by the choral group (and Mozart is also around), although repetitious, are a welcome addition, and some intriguing parallels start to develop near the end, but it’s too little too late. A film like Look at Me truly makes one appreciate a masterwork like Va Savoir, in which Jacques Rivette so seamlessly blended in his world with ours.

Grade: C.

Chris Knipp
06-06-2005, 01:26 AM
Well, I don't think there's much to discuss here yet. I don't quite see why arsaib sees Look at Me as so inferior to The Taste of Others. Both films have more in common than they differ from each other; they share a consistently droll and ironic way of looking at people, particularly Parisians. In both cases these individuals come in and out of the foreground as they relate to a famous and/or rich man who is arbitrary, egocentric, and a bit of a bore, a character of course played in both cases by Bacri, whom other people are somehow gathered around in one way or another and influenced by. Is he a rotter? Is he even the center of power? Jaoui and Bacri may not want to take a definite position on that. In Look at Me, he seems all powerful, but in the end the solution is to ignore him. In The Taste of Others, he becomes more sympathetic, but while he is nicer, he's also more a fool. In both cases he's a sly modern update of Moliere, a pompous bore who's a distant cousin to the Bourgeois Gentilhomme.

arsaib may find the young plump woman less appealing in Look at Me than some of the sexier, thinner characters in The Taste of Others. But Look at Me has the virtue of the greater focus given by its concentration on the young woman's travails and her relationship with her dad. The plot of The Taste of Others is more varied, but also more diffuse, and it consequently moves jerkily, at times losing momentum. In both cases the point of view is very similar, and so is the pacing, though Taste of Others arguably has more subtlety and Look at Me more momentum. I don't see the huge contrast arsaib finds here. It is a considerable exaggeration to call Look at Me "disappointly ordinary" and hard to see what would make The Taste of Others, which is so similar in outlook and even structure, so much more "witty and charming" than this new film. Is there a hardening of the point of view? I don't know. It may be Jaoui/Bacri's teamwork has been overrated both here and in France; and yet as a native English-speaker who's only learning French, who misses a lot of the subtleties in dialogue, and hasn't lived in Paris but only visited for a week or two at a time, I must observe that as in any social comedy a lot of the details are doomed to be lost to the non-French audience. If arsaib4 with his understanding of French sees fewer of those in Look at Me he should explain in more detail. The Cannes prize is not so much questionable, as something one ought to take seriously as an indication that the writing here continues to be witty. But must we relate everything to Cannes either as gospel or heresy?

I'd give both films a B/B+. To damn Look at Me with the faint praise of a C grade is an overreaction to something, I'm not sure what. In both films the aim consistently followed is to have us look at misguided, often unappealing people who're sympathetically, but always ironically observed. The sensibiity is more sophisticated than the filmmaking -- in both films. The narrow edge skirted between cruelty and humanism in both is rather original and the social observation in both is more acute than the ability to pace or structure. I noted this when I referred to the Humanité judgement that comedies with sophisticated dialogue and shaky rhythm are a Bacri/Jaoui trademark now.

I still hope to hear from trevor and other viewers.

oscar jubis
06-06-2005, 09:04 AM
Originally posted by Chris Knipp
arsaib may find the young plump woman less appealing in Look at Me than some of the sexier, thinner characters in The Taste of Others.

Excellent post! I agree with all of it except for the sentence above. It's pure conjecture. But I understand, you're trying to find a reason for the huge contrast in arsaib's take on two films of roughly equal pedigree (I actually like Look a little more, as do IMdb voters). The reason he gives is that the moments of "wit and allure" in Look at Me are "too few and far between" compared to the earlier film. I was quite surprised to read that.
We all bring into the theatre a set of predilections and prejudices that bear on our evaluation of every film. It seems to me logical, as you imply, that arsaib's own and lamentably unstated idiosyncracies influenced his appreciation of Look at Me. It's only natural. The sentence quoted amounts to a wild guess as to what those idiosyncracies/predilections may be. Right?