The serious and comic coexist with an ease and resonance that almost take your breath away in this superbly complex and affecting film from Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri, a tale of family disharmony that itself reflects the piquant tones and darker undercurrents expressed in the many pieces of classical music that are an integral part of its scenario. A story centering on an egotist and a masochist warily circling each other like scorpions in a domestic bottle might not seem the stuff of both rich humor and dramatic insight, but against all odds the filmmakers have transformed precisely such a tale into one of the best pictures of the year.
The egotist is Etienne Cassard (Bacri), an author-publisher whose writing has made him a celebrity among the Parisian literati. Utterly self-centered and oblivious of how obnoxiously he treats all around him (for example his aide-de camp Vincent, played as a beaten-down milquetoast by Gregoire Oestermann), Etienne is cursorily dismissive toward Lolita (Marilou Berry), his daughter by his first marriage, a chubby, morose girl with little self-confidence and an almost obsessive need for her father’s approval. Her only outlet is her singing, which has brought her under the tutelage of Sylvia (Jaoui), a teacher whose interest in her is only mild until she discovers the identity of the girl’s father–someone who could conceivably assist the literary career of her writer-husband Pierre (Laurent Grevill), who’s struggling to get some recognition for his new novel–and agrees to help Lolita train an amateur chorus whose performance, the youngster hopes, will impress Etienne. Meanwhile both father and daughter deal with other personal problems: Etienne’s peremptory attitude is poisoning his relationship with his second wife Karine (Virginie Desarnauts), who disagrees with him over how they should discipline their own, younger daughter. Meanwhile Lolita keeps chasing after a fellow who occasionally tosses her a bone because he wants to cultivate a connection with her father–something she suspects of everybody who shows any interest in her–while treating Sebastian (Keine Bouhiza), a likable guy who’s actually interested in her for herself, in as cavalier a fashion as Etienne deals with everybody. The effect of Etienne on people further removed from him is equally malign: Pierre, for example, is led under his influence to turn against Edith (Michele Moretti), the agent who’s long worked on his behalf, and Felix (Serge Riaboukine), a long-time friend with whom he was to have collaborated on a new book but whom he’s now keeping at arm’s length.
What “Look At Me” is ultimately about is how some–if not all–of the characters gradually come to understand, even in a very halting and incomplete fashion, their own flaws and begin to deal with them; the most notable example is Lolita, who overcomes even the revelation that her father skipped out of her triumphant concert in order to put on paper a story idea that had suddenly struck him, and realizes that Sebastian actually has feelings for her. Though the sequence is played by Berry with the same vaguely bovine restraint she employs through the entire film, the effect is quietly transcendent in a fashion that justifies–as few pictures could–the employment of the strains of Schubert’s sublime song “An die Musik” in the background. And Berry’s performance, which uncannily combines irritability and a poignant neediness, is matched by those of the other actors. Bacri is the epitome of self-absorption but also adds to that characteristic the same note of neediness one finds expressed more blatantly in his daughter, while Jaoui provides the proper elegance to the figure of Sylvia, while also registering the undercurrent of shame she feels at effectively using her student to give her husband’s career a boost. The supporting cast are equally fine, with Bouhiza coming across with particular resonance as a young man who feels deeply and painfully. “Look At Me” is technically more functional than remarkable, but in this case the emphasis has quite rightly been put on excellence in the writing and acting rather than pure visuals. And in a film where music plays so important a role, it’s good to note that it’s been skillfully chosen and well presented.
In short, this is an almost perfect film about decidedly imperfect people; and to those of us who admit that we share in that imperfection, it will convey some important truths about ourselves in a fashion that manages to be both profound and delightful.