Lolita Cassard (Marilou Berry, daughter of Josiane Balasko) is an aspiring classical singer constantly vying for the attention of her famous author/publisher father Étienne (cowriter Jean-Pierre Bacri). He calls Lolita 'my big girl,' insensitive to the implied criticism his endearment foists on his overweight daughter. The corruption of celebrity makes everyone around her suck up to her father until Lolita is fairly forced to scream "Look at Me."
Director Agnès Jaoui ("The Taste of Others") and her cowriter husband Jean-Pierre Bacri have an acute sense of the human condition. "Look at Me" is a multi-layered look at how people act with one another, how their perceptions are so filtered through their own world view that they cannot see what is right in front of them. The power of fame is a heady and destructive brew that makes one man an egotistical monster who surrounds himself with subservient personalities. Jaoui and Bacri's central character grows into an understanding that allows her to walk away, finally beginning to believe in her own self worth.
Before he is even on screen, Étienne's behavior is exemplified by a rude taxi driver who makes Lolita go on the defensive with his hostile, totally self-absorbed accusations. Lolita stops to pick up two others, a pretty young woman, Karine (Virginie Desarnauts), and the great man himself. They are on their way to the premiere of a movie based on Étienne's book and he is enough of a star in his own right that one of the ticket holders waiting in line outside, Sylvia Millet (cowriter/director Agnès Jaoui), is accused by her husband Pierre (Laurent Grévill, "The Good Thief") of being put into a trance when she spies him. Pierre is a published writer who, like Lolita, is beginning to doubt his career aspirations. The Millets are accompanied by Pierre's best friend, Félix (Serge Riaboukine, "Le Temps du loup"), another writer, and their publisher Édith (Michèle Moretti, "Who Killed Bambi?"). This group of outsiders begins to show their own dynamics when Sylvia asks Édith for their tickets and she claims to have given them to her already. Their evening ends on that note. What Jaoui has already told us that her own character does not know is that the idolizing singing student who has annoyed her by asking her to take on an amateur group is Étienne Cassard's daughter.
Lolita and Sylvia begin a pas de deux that forms the vortex of this spiraling story. Lolita doubts anyone who pays her attention, except, ironically, for Sylvia, who changes her tune when she learns Lolita's identity. She continues to yearn for Mathieu (Julien Baumgartner), a young man who obviously has another girlfriend and is clearly using her, in spite of the attention of Sébastien (Keine Bouhiza), a young man whose initial gratefulness (Lolita helped him out when he was drunk) turns into genuine feelings. She clashes with her young stepmother Karine, who tactlessly obsesses over weight while she means well. It is Sylvia's disgust, not only at her own behavior but at how her 'connection' changes her husband's, that leads the two women to self discovery and a kind of freedom.
Not only do Jaoui and Bacri excel at portraying their themes of power and self image, they have a great deal of fun with word play - pay attention to an exchange between Sylvia and Pierre in their car on their way to the Cassard's country home, where their words come a full, amusing circle. Jaoui injects visual clues to her characters as well - Lolita walking past a billboard featuring a buff model, Étienne playing chess while his abused and loyal assistant Vincent (Grégoire Oestermann, "Lucie Aubrac") slumbers beside him, Lolita wearing the sweater Karine talked her into buying on the way to meet Mathieu. Even Étienne's final insult to his daughter, his leaving her concert at her solo, has undertones, his writer's block cleared when his daughter's voice fills the room.
The ensemble cast couldn't be better, from Bacri's rude, imperious manner to Jaoui's stubborn decency. Berry balances her hurt with her whining about it so that just as one begins to get annoyed with the character she becomes hopeful again, making one wish her the best. Keine Bouhiza is a good counterpoint to Berry, a nice guy whose niceness is held suspect. Virginie Desarnauts is also very good as a wife genuinely trying to connect with her stepdaughter while gradually letting us know she's aware of what mind games her husband plays.
Jaoui leaves her audience with a punch, too. Her final scene is an exhilarating bit of rebellion, using the glorious music which has permeated her film. One can only hope we don't have to wait another five years for her next work.
20-year old Lolita Cassard (Marilou Berry) is angry at the world. Overweight and plain she stands in sharp contrast to her beautiful young stepmother, Karine (Virginie Desarnauts), and vies for the attention of he successful author father, Etienne (Jean-Pierre Bacri). More than anything, Lolita wants the attention of her self-possessed parent and force Etienne to Look at Me.”
Writer-director-actor Agnes Jaoui packs together a talented ensemble cast with a screenplay, co-written with Bacri, which copes with parental success and fame, coming of age, a struggling writer and his conflicted music teacher wife, classical music writer’s block and more.
The focus of “Look at Me” is mainly on Lolita. The heavy-bodied girl is on the verge of becoming a woman but the insecurities she has developed growing up in the shadow of Etienne seem insurmountable. A budding young singer, she records a tape especially for her father, hoping that he will listen to it and gain a new respect for his daughter. That, at least, is Lolita’s hope.
Etienne, long secure in his position of success, fame and wealth as an author, is so aware of himself and unaware of others that he fails to see the effect of his distracted disdain, especially on Lolita. She, in turn, is striving for a singing career and forces herself on her music teacher, Sylvia (Agnes Jaoui), to help Lolita with training an amateur choral group. Sylvia, in turn, gripes about the intrusion to struggling writer-husband Pierre – until she learns the identity of Lolita’s famous father.
The father-daughter story is the most prominent of the several that Jaoui weaves and the helmer elicits a strong performance from Marilou Berry as Lolita. Jean-Pierre Bacri deftly walks the tightrope that could cause his character, Etienne, to fall into a caricature of selfishness. Instead, Bacri balances the author enough to give the man a modicum of humanity, but not too much.
The less prominent players (I won’t say supporting) are all given full shrift by the writers and, across the board, successfully make their individual roles into real people. Jaoui does a fine job as the celebrity-smitten music teacher, Sylvia, who uses Lolita to get to rub elbows with Etienne. Laurent Greville, as Sylvia’s husband, Pierre, is struggling for literary notice but isn’t quite ready for the professional changes in his life since he met Etienne. Virginie Desarnauts, as the trophy wife of the prominent author, comes across, initially, as shallow and vain, complaining to weight-challenge Lolita about having to lose ounces from her trim frame. But, Karine proves to be a good friend to Lolita and her prominent place in Etienne’s house is deserved. Keine Bouhiza plays Sebastien, and earnest young man who is fond of Lolita and is probably the only person in her life who hasn’t used her to get to her father.
This wonderfully complex drama is given equally solid treatment behind the camera. Stephane Fontaine does a splendid job lensing, capturing the lives of the characters in an appealing way. Jaoui does a commendable job, whatever hat she wears. Her script, with Bacri, is maturely written with great thought given to all of the characters, not just her own Sylvia. She is an actor’s filmmaker and it shows in “Look at Me.”
It just goes to show what you can get with a talented cast, intelligent writing and solid direction. I give Look at Me” an A-.
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