The conflict in Look at Me could probably be resolved with a few simple words of kindness and understanding. In that way, it is almost an example of Roger Ebert’s Idiot Plot, which describes “any plot containing problems which would be solved instantly if all of the characters were not idiots.” Here, that is essentially the point — the characters may not be idiots, but they are terminally thoughtless, or at least some of them are. The ones who matter.
Did I mention this was a comedy? Agnes Jaoui’s film won Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival, and it’s easy to see why the jury went for it — Jaoui has an impressive way of interspersing sharp, meticulously contrived bars between stretches of casual, convincing naturalism. I do not know if this mixing of artifice and “truth” has any greater philosophical implications, but it is absolutely riveting to watch, that rare example of screenwriting cleverness grounded in a strong attempt at verisimilitude.
Most of this revolves around the character of Etienne Cassard, played by the veteran Jean-Pierre Bacri. A successful and admired writer whose latest book has just been adapted into a movie, he is almost pathologically self-absorbed, but the movie plays along with him for a while; the opening scene, for example, has him yelling at rude cab driver, but the driver is in fact rude, as mere minutes earlier we saw him chew out Etienne’s unassuming daughter Lolita (Marylou Berry). Only later does it become apparent that his outbursts and brutal side comments are alienating everyone around him.
Into the fray come Sylvia (Jaoui, the director), the talented Lolita’s voice teacher, and her struggling writer husband Pierre (Laurent Grevill). The relationship is tricky — Sylvia genuinely likes Lolita, and cares for her, but doesn’t connect until she finds out who the girl’s father is and how he can help her husband. Lolita would be crushed; she resents her dad’s stature and the way everyone treats her because of it. It has gotten to the point where she is offering other people money on behalf of her father. The bitterness in her voice is palpable. “He’s generous for that stuff. Giving money’s pretty simple.”
The pleasure of Look at Me comes from watching the dynamics between these vivid, alive characters and catching the nuances in their relationships. Sometimes these are exaggerated (watch the way Etienne uses his friend as a verbal punching bag) and sometimes they are subtler: late in the film, he has a rare tender conversation with his weight-conscious daughter, which he lovingly wraps up with “You’re my big girl.” This is fascinating: throughout the movie, he has shown himself capable of extraordinary cruelty, equally apt to ignore, ridicule, or offhandedly put down. Here he is making an effort to be loving and reassuring, and out comes “you’re my big girl.”
Perhaps the most telling line comes in the denoument, courtesy of Lolita: “Everyone’s crying. And over what?” It is not that the characters’ concerns and troubles are frivolous or unimportant; far from it. It is that their problems are so slight when put in perspective, so easily correctable. A word will do it; a gesture. Hell, even “you’re my big girl” is a start. The ending is so moving precisely because we feel as if the characters have finally begun to make this realization, to come to the conclusion that they can change things if they want to.
Jaoui has a few unwieldy moments of stuck-up ironic detachment, but more often I was surprised by the sympathy and affection Look at Me shows for its characters — even its generally detestable protagonist is more of a tragic figure than anything else. The film’s reputation on the arthouse circuit precedes it, and rightfully so.