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GOOD TASTE, SOUR LIVES

By A. O. SCOTT
The New York Times, 10/1/04

"Look at Me" ("Comme un Image") was shown last May at the Cannes Film Festival, where it charmed quite a few American critics, this one included. The second film directed by Agnès Jaoui, who plays one of the central roles, "Look at Me" is a witty and acute examination of friendship, ambition and betrayal in the Parisian literary world. The story, which Ms. Jaoui wrote in collaboration with her former husband, Jean-Pierre Bacri (who also appears in the film), is constructed with a rare and pleasing sense of clarity and symmetry. The Cannes jury, led by Quentin Tarantino, awarded it the prize for best screenplay.

For some Americans, though, a significant part of the film's appeal will undoubtedly lie not in its story but in its milieu. Ms. Jaoui effortlessly (and to some extent unconsciously) depicts France as a land of cultural refinement and diverting social complication — a place where a famous novelist is recognized on the street by a voice teacher, and where a less famous novelist (the voice teacher's husband) is spotted by a housepainter who saw him on a "literary broadcast" on television.
The action takes place mainly in handsome, tastefully disheveled Paris apartments, in a rambling, book-cluttered country house (which belongs to the more famous novelist), in various cafes and restaurants, and in an austerely lovely rural church, where a climactic recital of vocal works by Monteverdi and Handel is performed to a standing-room-only crowd.

Tonight, "Look at Me" will open the 42nd New York Film Festival, and patrons arriving at Lincoln Center hoping to have their good taste discreetly affirmed will not be disappointed.

But though Ms. Jaoui's film, which opens commercially in February, is certainly a toothsome bonbon for Francophile delectation, it is also much more than that. This point was made, perhaps inadvertently, by the one dissenter I discussed the film with in Cannes, a colleague who has lived in Paris for many years. Her familiarity with the types portrayed in the movie — members of and aspirants to what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called "the aristocracy of culture" — had bred, if not contempt, then a certain impatience. "Some of us have to live with those people," she said, sighing wearily and rolling her eyes.

"Some of us" clearly includes Ms. Jaoui herself, who regards her own social caste with a scrupulously measured mixture of satire and affection. And while some of her characters' folkways may strike Americans as quaint, picturesque or enviable — if only the cook at our country house made rabbit with tarragon sauce! — their behavioral traits, the less admirable ones in particular, will not seem exotic at all.
Without disturbing the atmosphere of orderly complacency in which these writers and their friends and families dwell, "Look at Me" exposes the unseemly impulses that govern their interactions, revealing a world of celebrity-worship, vanity and pervasive hypocrisy. The occasional eruptions of decency and good manners soften the sting of recognition, like a kiss on the cheek following a well-deserved slap in the face.

The person who most deserves to be slapped is also the one who demands the most flattery and affection — Etienne Gassard (Mr. Bacri), the famous novelist whose narcissism is the dark star at the center of the film's solar system. A powerful publisher as well as a literary celebrity, Etienne is capable of impulsive generosity, and his brusque honesty can be both bracing and funny. But his self-absorption, his cutting sarcasm, and his utter indifference to anyone else's needs or feelings make him a corrupting and corrosive figure. His egoism and his fame are especially hard on his older daughter, Lolita (Marilou Berry, pictured at top of the page), an aspiring singer who is shy, needy and overweight, at once resentful of her father's influence and dependent on it. "I don't hate him," she says to Sébastien (Keine Bouhiza), the young man who proves to be her only true friend. "I just want him dead."

Lolita assumes that people only pretend to be interested in her as a way of gaining access to her father, who neglects her in favor of his luscious young wife (Virginie Desarnauts), their 4-year-old daughter and his own monumental ego. She is more often right than wrong in this assumption, and is not above using it to her advantage. Upon learning who Lolita's father is, her starstruck voice teacher, Sylvia (Ms. Jaoui), suddenly takes notice of her.

Sylvia's husband, Pierre (Laurent Grevill), whose career had been stuck in a doldrums of polite reviews and negligible sales, benefits enormously from the connection. He and Sylvia buy a spacious new apartment, but as he gravitates toward Etienne's orbit, Pierre is pulled away from his old bohemian friends and his sad-sack bohemian principles, much to Sylvia's dismay.

People who see "Look at Me" are likely to leave the theater arguing about whether Sylvia is the film's moral paragon or its most thoroughgoing hypocrite — a quarrel that pays tribute both to Ms. Jaoui's skill as an actress and to her meticulousness as a writer and director. She is an astute, merciless anatomist of the petty moral failings that determine our intimate and casual relationships, but her films (the first one, "The Taste of Others," was shown at the New York festival in 2000) show no trace of misanthropy. Some characters behave better than others, but noboby's perfect, and there are neither scapegoats nor heroes, only flawed and fascinating human beings.

Which is not to say that "Look at Me" is neutral or relativistic. Its English title evokes Lolita's heart-rending, unarticulated plea, not only to her father but to the world, and the film takes her side in protesting against the casual, thoughtless and systematic ways in which people are humiliated, ignored and rendered invisible by others. This is not, in itself, a political theme, but it has an obvious feminist dimension — young women who look like Lolita tend to be devalued and dismissed, whatever their other talents — and a potentially inexhaustible range of social implications.

Injustice, Ms. Jaoui suggests, starts at home, even if the home in question is a book-lined apartment in Paris or a charming old farmhouse in the French countryside.