A Talking Picture

The Me generation: Agnès Jaoui puts a personal touch on the bourgeois ensemble comedy

Making middle-class character ensembles safe for moviegoers, Agnès Jaoui has mastered the manufacture of interpersonal naturalism. Look at Me, as well as her earlier release The Taste of Others, could be viewed as Woody Allen movies without the narcissism, pretentious point-scoring, cheap observations, or the Woodman's peculiar comic delivery. Little in a Jaoui film is particularly original, but it's all perfectly convincing. Jaoui's husband, Jean-Pierre Bacri, again co-writes and stars as a menopausal jerk, this time as self-obsessed novelist Étienne, around whom acolytes and brownnosers circle like moths. Étienne has a hot trophy wife (Virginie Desarnauts) and a toddler, but the focus is on Lolita (Marilou Berry), Étienne's adult daughter from an earlier marriage, who perseveres with voice training despite being neurotically devastated by her father's neglect, his fame (men only regard her as a way to meet him), and her own obesity. Lolita is the movie's prime mover—her self-loathing subtly instigates the other characters' movements. Her singing teacher (Jaoui) is the childless wife of a downcast blocked writer (Laurent Grévill); thanks to Lolita, the couple falls into Étienne's orbit, and so notoriety and success eventually begin to chisel away at their fragile equilibrium.

Jaoui's reigning gag motif is the cell phone—virtually every scene is interrupted and controlled by chirping electronics; we, like everyone, must abide. Otherwise, Look at Me has the flavor of a Mike Leigh-esque weave, but Jaoui's achievement is quietly unique. Her characters are so carefully conceived and realistically performed that she is able to shoot them in sustained middle shots, with dialogue coming from all directions—an old-fashioned model rare enough today, even in French movies, to be startling. What's more, Look at Me's people do not use movie-speak—saying things for dramatic impact that would shame, appall, nauseate, or embarrass a real person. Instead, they relate as you and I do, avoiding discomfort, telling white lies, remaining silent when they'd rather explode. Sustaining the good-evil webwork of decorum in a film with this many roles is a watchmaker's craft, and a deceptively complex country house lunch scene is a made-it-look-easy triumph of behavioral composition.

Prime movers: Berry and Jaoui
photo: Jean-Paul Dumas/Sony Pictures Classics
Prime movers: Berry and Jaoui

Each member of the cast has his or her moment in the sun—even Grégoire Oestermann's pathetic yes-man, revealing during that meal a moment of covert disgrace. Despite her position as the film's pity-well, Berry is, to her credit, nearly as unlikable as Bacri. But Jaoui, emerging as the narrative's moral compass, dominates; it's a fiercely vanity-free portrait of a middle-aged woman knee-deep in the shit of men. Look at Me doesn't quite have the bounce and invention of The Taste of Others—its arcs are too predictable, its assholes too pernicious, its ending too cranked up with crescendo. But it's a tender, expertly wrought piece of human exchange, and therefore a scarce beast.

 
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