Look At Me

May, 2005, Comedy

Directed by:Agnès Jaoui

Starring:Marilou Berry, Agnès Jaoui, and Jean-Pierre Bacri

The French often treat their cuisine and intellectuals with belabored seriousness, according them the kind of pop-star status Americans reserve for hip-hop artists who wear their baseball caps at odd angles and movie starlets with mammeries that owe far more to a plastic surgeon’s skill than Mother Nature. Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri, the artistic team who won last year's award for best screenplay at Cannes, have fashioned this examination of artistic pretension and self-delusion that's as scathing as it is humorous. She also directed; both play leading roles, which makes them creative triple-threats in keeping down the costs of production. If this movie is any indication of their abilities, long may they continue to skewer their countrymen. 

Bacri, with contemptuous eye and balding crown, plays Etienne Cassard, a famous novelist-turned-publisher who's reached the stage in his career when fame, fortune and the ability to influence the literary careers of those who curry his favor have harmoniously meshed. Cassard's special skills lie in belittling those who can't retaliate, a group that includes Karine, his very young second wife, Vincent, a gofer who buzzes around Etienne like a moth on a porch light and daughter Lolita, from his long-since failed first marriage, whose bulk and resulting self-consciousness he manages to disparage at every opportunity. 

Having struggled to find herself in several different creative disciplines, Lolita takes voice lessons with Sylvia Millet, (Ms. Jaoui) whose husband Vincent writes novels which garner critical praise but tiny readership. Sylvia admires Cassard's books and when she discovers that she's tutoring his daughter, she wrangles the chance to inject herself and Vincent into Etienne's orbit. Vincent, normally quiet and highly self-critical, is soon swept up into this sophisticated crowd, dropping old friends and his loyal publisher in the bargain, while Sylvia continues to nurture Lolita's vocal ambitions so the Millets can continue to join the publisher for weekends at his country estate. What follows is a roundelay of deception, self-absorption and venality that finally affects the entire Cassard family, the Millets and Lolita's long-suffering boyfriend Sebastian, who uses a fictitious name to disguise his Algerian background. When the wreckage starts to pile up, only the characters are surprised; by then, the audience knows more about these sniping aesthetes than they do about themselves.

Bacri's Etienne elevates smug arrogance to new and nasty heights. Convinced the world properly revolves around him, feigning false modesty and concern for others with equal transparency and capable of devastating verbal cruelty, he's incapable of seeing anyone's needs as superior to his own. To have written this bastard's lines is one kind of skill--but to then play the part of the man who says them; what a talent!

That's true of Jaoui as well; she's as skillful behind the camera as she is attractive in front of it, only gradually realizing how she and Vincent have cut themselves off from close friends--and each other--by so willingly attaching themselves to Cassard's social set. Her climatic confrontation with Etienne flows far more credibly from what's proceeded it than does Lolita's with the smitten Sebastine, but that's the only false note in this otherwise knowing examination of the myriad ways in which even the most intelligent among us can be so damnably self-deluded. 

A sharp gem, equal parts domestic comedy and domestic tragedy, "Look At Me" provides sharply observed entertainment…and the opportunity for disturbing self-reflection.         

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