Yes, this film is French and it’s subtitled. These combined factors are apt to play against Agnes Jaoui’s second film, Look at Me, when it hits town this week, but I find myself asking why this should be. Asheville has a pretty darned savvy set of moviegoers, but from what I’ve seen in the past five years, it’s one with a history of avoiding subtitled movies in general and French ones in particular (unless they’re signed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet).
Is this a backlash against the days when our sense of cultural inferiority made it axiomatic that a movie was more cultured if it was in a foreign language? Or is it a reaction to the fact that some pretty lousy movies — My Wife Is an Actress comes to mind — have weaseled their way into the art-house circuit for no reason other than their foreign-language pedigree?
Actually, I could understand either line of thought, but clearly both of them are quite limiting. You might want to think about that before dismissing Jaoui’s new film sight unseen — especially if you aren’t someone who considers the release of Star Wars: Episode III a cultural event on a par with the premiere of the final opera in Wagner’s Ring cycle.
As with Jaoui’s previous film, the charming The Taste of Others, her real-life husband, Jean-Pierre Bacri, both co-authors and co-stars here. And, once again, Jaoui casts herself in a pivotal supporting role, but not as the star in her own movie. That honor goes to virtual newcomer Marilou Berry (she had a small role at the age of 8 in My Life Is Hell), who more than holds her own against the more seasoned players — and without whom the film would not really work.
Look at Me isn’t exactly about Berry’s character, the inaptly named Lolita Cassard, but her position in the story — or stories — is the film’s central element. Lolita is the depressed (and sometimes depressing) daughter of a famous and self-absorbed novelist, Ettiene Cassard (Bacri). Though her name unavoidably conjures up Nabokov’s famous heroine, Berry’s Lolita doesn’t. She is overweight, has a large nose, and is not traditionally pretty. She’s also a bit clumsy, too obsessed with getting her father to notice her, and suffers from a huge sense of inferiority from years of people trying to befriend her only in order to get to her famous father.
It’s to the credit of both Berry and Jaoui that Lolita isn’t merely turned into a figure for us to sympathize with. Instead, they’ve allowed her part a realism sufficient to make her more than a little annoying at times. However, she certainly has her reasons for feeling put-upon.
Her stepmother, Karine (Virginie Desernauts), is well-meaning enough and constantly strives to be friends with Lolita, but she also spends an inordinate amount of time obsessing about her own daughter’s eating habits and lecturing her about the penalties society imposes on the overweight. In fact, she does everything but say, “You don’t want to end up like Lolita, do you?”
Lolita’s father, for his part, has no time for anyone but himself, and is particularly unable to deal with or even notice his daughter. He never bothers to listen to her sing at voice class, asking her for a tape-recording instead. Then he forgets he asked, and when he gets the tape, never listens to it. He attempts to fob her off with assurances that she’s his “big girl” (perhaps not the most thoughtful term), but he’s clearly just going through the motions.
Lolita’s voice teacher, Sylvia Millet (Jaoui), finds the girl something of a whining bore — until she learns that her father is the Etienne Cassard. Realizing that being nice to Cassard’s daughter might pay benefits in pushing the work of her embittered novelist husband, Pierre (Larent Grevill, The Good Thief), she starts cozying up to Lolita. But unlike most of the other characters, she does so with some sense of guilt.
This bare description of the setup doesn’t really convey the genuine emotional depth or the sharp humor in Jaoui’s film, which is at turns funny, touching, infuriating and, finally, hopeful. But the movie’s never sappy — not even close. Jaoui is too perceptive an artist for that eventuality, her sense of humor too sharp-edged. She may reward her main character with something like a happy ending — but it’s only a partly happy one.
And it’s only one of several endings met by the various characters, some of which require fairly hefty prices. Jaoui is something of a romantic, yes, but she’s also a bit of a cynic — or at least an amused realist. (Look at Me is certainly less cynical than Silvio Narrizano’s classic Georgy Girl, which has a similar theme.) Her film is a reflection of that — and a rather wonderful reflection, too. Rated PG-13 for brief language and a sexual reference.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke