Agnès Jaoui's sophomore directorial effort Look at Me (Comme Une Image) ventures into darker places than her previous film, 2000's The Taste of Others. This time around, it's not class or economic differences that are at the root of the conflict, but rather individual weaknesses, egocentrism, and a complicated network of power relationships that exist between nearly all the characters.
Lolita Cassard (Marilou Berry) is a twenty-year-old overweight woman in Paris, something that appears to be a huge aesthetic offence in a city full of beauties. Though she's the daughter of hugely successful novelist/publisher Étienne Cassard (Jean-Pierre Bacri), she is denied entry to a chic nightclub that is having a party in her father's honor. Adding to Lolita's self-esteem problem is her father's girlfriend Karine (Virginie Desarnauts), a stylish, beautiful, twenty-something blonde who breaks into tears when she gains ten grams. Lolita's one passion in life is singing, which she studies under the tutelage of Sylvia (Ms. Jaoui), who is married to not-yet-successful author Pierre (Laurent Grévill). Étienne is the sun in this twisted solar system, and all of these characters (plus a few additional ones) will revolve around, gravitate towards, and ultimately be repelled by him.
Along with suffering from a negative body image, Lolita has a difficult time trusting anybody, as most people pay attention to her only in hopes of getting closer to her celebrity dad. (Oddly enough, Marilou Berry happens to be the real-life daughter of actress Josiane Balasko.) Even Sébastien (Keine Bouhiza), a young Arab man that Lolita meets and befriends, is not above suspicion. All she wants is to be accepted and acknowledged by her father, and part of her desire to be a great singer is to make him proud of her. However, Étienne can never see beyond her outward appearance, and all she gets from him is the occasional rough grab followed by "my big girl!" Étienne is an egomaniac who thrives on conflict. He never holds his tongue against those who stand in his way -- be it a rude taxi driver, a fellow publisher, or even his new boss. At other times, his scorn is directed towards those closest to him, and he's not above chewing out Karine in front of a roomful of people, or ignoring Lolita during an entire meal by taking cell phone calls. Yet people continue to flock around him -- so powerful is his draw.
Jaoui's screenplay is beautifully crafted (winner of a well-deserved Best Screenplay award at Cannes this year) and the complex interconnectedness of the characters and their resulting relationships (which usually contain an ulterior motive) is handled with great skill. Though the film is, for the most part, apolitical, it's interesting that the one person willing to speak out against Étienne is Sébastien, the only character outside of both the bourgeois circle the rest of the characters reside in, and of the culture as a whole. However, unlike Robert Altman or Mike Leigh, Jaoui doesn't create characters in the upper echelon of society in order to criticize them, something that has been leveled against her by some critics. If anything, Look at Me most closely resembles a Woody Allen film -- another director whose films are often set amongst the elite of his city.
With incredible performances throughout (clearly Jean-Pierre Bacri's finest hour), Look at Me is a wonderfully entertaining film that, while nothing revolutionary, is destined to be a crowd-pleaser at this year's festival.
Look at Me is the opening night selection of the New York Film Festival -- October 1 @ 8:15 (Alice Tully Hall) and 9:00 (Avery Fisher Hall). A Sony Pictures Classics release.