BEST FILMS OF THE DECADE #10
LOOK AT ME
(COMME UNE IMAGE)
commentary by Tony McRae
Marcel Proust would have loved this movie about a plump twenty year-old woman named Lolita (first time actress Marilou Berry) who has a beautiful voice and low self esteem. She also has a celebrity father Etienne who is self-centered and plainly disappointed with his daughter, that is, when he takes the time to notice her. What he thinks about mostly is how old he's getting, how boring his friends are, and why he's not able to write these days. What Proust would like is not so much the plot--nothing much happens, at least nothing precipitous that would spike our adrenalin; he would appreciate the interstices between the actions, those small and often mundane acts that usually go unnoticed. Like Etienne's careless buss on his daughter's cheek as he reaches for his cell phone; or Lolita's tentative smile when she is given a perfunctory compliment by her voice coach, only to observe seconds later her teacher's demeanor--straightened back, warm smile--when the next singer, a handsome young man with a pleasant but ordinary voice, begins his piece. Lolita has no illusions: she soon discovers that anyone who pays attention to her does so to gain entrée into her famous father's circle, since he is both writer and publisher. This includes Sylvia, Lolita's voice coach, who is married to a despondent and struggling writer and sees the advantage of befriending Lolita. Also waiting in line are various young men who move in and out of Lolita's life, depending on how successful she is in getting her father to help their careers along.
The writers Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri (she plays Sylvia Millet the voice coach, he Etienne Cassard the writer/publisher) are in no rush to move the story along. They are content instead to let the banal details of daily life, the embarrassment of being chubby in a society that values svelteness like no other, café meals that reveal only the disinterest of a self-centered father, the efforts to make the right career choices, the choir rehearsals as the small group of singers prepares for a performance of Monteverdi and Handel choral music in a church in the Yonne region of Burgundy.
Proust would have been interested in Lolita's plight; he would say that her discomfort with her body and its inability to display clothes to any advantage, could very well heighten her acuity in dealing with people, especially her father. And in the end this is indeed what occurs. But not just yet. I see Lolita's journey as a distancing from her father without creating a chasm between them. Though Etienne Cassard may never appreciate his daughter's sensitivity, Lolita is concerned for him, still loves him and will not intentionally hurt him.
In a delicious scene a few minutes into the movie, Etienne's trophy wife Karine and Lolita are in a boutique. Karine, just a few years older than her step-daughter, bemoans the fact that an outfit she is trying on is a bit too tight. Lolita stares despondently at her. Doesn't this woman know how lucky she is to have the body she has?
What is so interesting about this whole business of body and beauty is that as the film continues, Lolita becomes prettier. No, she doesn't lose weight, she becomes more attractive.. The only one who seems to notice this is Sébastian (Keine Bouhiza), her latest boyfriend whose tenderness and concern she views with deep suspicion.
Lolita is at the center of this movie but she is not the only one questioning herself. Sylvia Millet's own awakening runs a somewhat parallel path to Lolita's, though her tolerance with her self-absorbed writer husband has a longer fuse. But in the end she too rebels, not only against her husband's spinelessness but also against Etienne who could not stay to hear his daughter sing.
Some critics have written that the ending is a bit too pat, that the writers opted for a little wishful thinking. My read is different. In the film's last sequence Lolita and her father are sitting on the steps of his country house after the concert. She learns from him that Sébastian has turned down her father's offer of help. He has opted instead for a journalism job on a small inconsequential newspaper. We can see the shock on Lolita's face, quickly followed by a revelation of her own stupidity: she has been treating Sébastian as her father has been treating her! The film has been building up to this coup de théâtre, and its arrival is just right.
Agnès Jaoui has worked for Alain Resnais, France's master of what I would call Proustian space, the way an actor walks, the turn of head, the light falling on a young woman as she sings, the coldness of a father's gaze. How much of this film was designed with this in mind, I have no idea. But it works. And it bears repeated viewings.