If it's been a while since you've seen a great work of art, perhaps you've forgotten what it feels like: It feels euphoric. At least, that's the glorious, heel-kickin' boost that resulted after a screening of Look at Me, by French writer/director/actress/superhero Agnès Jaoui. There was euphoria -- and jubilation (somebody knows how to make a film!) and reassurance (about the possibility of real psychological insight) and catharsis. Outside the theater afterward, I had to stop myself from making a public service announcement.
Look at Me -- with its impeccable script, finely tuned acting, and astonishing emotional integrity -- is film at its finest, and it does what art is meant to do: It shines a penetrating, intelligent light on a swath of living, breathing humanity. And in so doing, it shows us who we are.
Lolita (Marilou Berry) is 20 years old and, in her father's words, "anger on wheels." She's got cause: Said father is the famous writer/publisher Étienne Cassard (Jean-Pierre Bacri), an insufferable narcissist who can't be bothered to pay attention to either one of his daughters -- neither Lolita, whose mother left for the West Indies when Lolita was 3, nor Louna (Emma Beziaud), a 5-year-old whose mother, Karine (Virginie Desarnauts), is roughly Lolita's age. It doesn't help that Lolita is heavy, and not conventionally pretty, and that her father calls her his "big girl" while admiring every skinny blonde who enters his field of vision. Or that nearly everyone who befriends Lolita, including her sometime boyfriend Mathieu (Julien Baumgartner), does so only to get to her father.
Sylvia (Agnès Jaoui), Lolita's voice teacher, is guilty of same. At first, Sylvia finds Lolita unnerving -- the younger woman openly idolizes the older -- and largely a pest, since Lolita is organizing a small chorus and wants Sylvia to direct. Sylvia vows to her husband, frustrated writer Pierre (Laurent Grévill), that she won't take on the extra work, but two things happen: 1.) Lolita reveals that she's the daughter of Cassard, a writer Sylvia greatly admires; and 2.) Lolita's father wants to publish Pierre's book. Such is the impetus for herding the whole flock of characters into a single pen (usually Cassard's country home): Lolita, Karine, Cassard, Sylvia, Pierre, and a few others, including Sébastien (Keine Bouhiza), a boy who likes Lolita as she is. Of course, she's having none of it.
Among the amazing things about Look at Me are the individual moments, crafted to perfection, that pass between characters. In an opening scene between Sylvia and Pierre, Sylvia removes her eye makeup as she comforts her husband, who is disconsolate about his flailing career. As she smudges the shadow into a cloth, Pierre smiles and remarks that every once in a while, it's lovely to have a discussion with a panda. It's an affectionate jab, a way of saying that he's grateful for her support without actually having to say it, and she knows it, and so does he. Later, while shopping for clothes, the well-meaning Karine urges Lolita into a dressing room to try on a shirt. Lolita, fulminating about the lack of selection in her size, snorts, "I hope I fit in the booth." Here, Lolita gets to be a real fat woman with real anger and dignity. She's smart and funny, and her anger is righteous.
It's also dangerous. For Lolita is not simply a victim, alone in a world of perpetrators. Her anger is a weapon, and an effective one, that can slice through anyone, even a well-wisher who attempts an approach. The gentle Sébastien wants only to love Lolita, but he's smart enough (and strong enough) to reject her abuse; beautiful Karine, unsteady after several years of marriage to an asshole (Cassard), doesn't fare as well. That Lolita can and does hurt other people is a testament to the brilliance of the script (written by both Jaoui and Bacri), and to its wisdom about how damage works. Lolita is wounded, and she lashes out. Her father may be responsible for those wounds, but he is untouched by them. Instead, it's others who suffer.
If there is a flaw in Look at Me, it's Cassard's character, who errs slightly on the side of excess. But the extremeness is necessary for the plot. It takes a man like Cassard to create anger like Lolita's, so he can't be too sympathetic, and there really are men like him, with daughters like her. That Cassard never changes, not even in the final moments of the film, is a giddy pleasure, since it allows Lolita the full spark of her defiance. When you leave the theater, you may be sailing, too.
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