On Screen

She's Got the 'Look'

Etienne (Jean-Pierre Bacri) has little regard for his older daughter Lolita (Marilou Berry)  --  or anyone else  --  in the film
Etienne (Jean-Pierre Bacri) has little regard for his older daughter Lolita (Marilou Berry) -- or anyone else -- in the film "Look at Me." (By Jean-paul Dumas-grillet)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 29, 2005

HER NAME IS LOLITA, but she's hardly the coltish temptress of Nabokov's famous novel. In "Look at Me," a French seriocomedy from Agnes Jaoui, she's Lolita Cassard (Marilou Berry), the slightly chubby daughter of Etienne (Jean-Pierre Bacri), a successful, self-absorbed writer. Her desperate need for Etienne's approval -- and her resentment and heartbreak for failing to get it -- permeates this trenchant film like a mournful song that won't fade.

She may be doomed to suffer forever. Etienne struts through life oblivious to the effect he has on people. He's concerned entirely with asserting mastery over people, his writing and the occasional beautiful young woman that crosses his line of vision. If this fiftyish rogue has any affection for a daughter, it's for his baby girl, the child of his second, modelish wife, Karine (Virginie Desarnauts).

The people around Lolita -- Etienne's employees and writers, her family, boyfriend and others -- understand her anguish. But these Parisians are powerless themselves; most of them are intimidated by Etienne's air of superiority and lured by his celebrity. Many toady up to Lolita simply to get access to her famous father. (In Paris, you have to understand, writers are highly regarded.) And in a society that reveres women who look starved and picturesque, Lolita is a lonely girl indeed. ("Comme Une Image," the movie's French title, translates as "Pretty as a Picture," which would have given the film much more thematic resonance.)

Written by Jaoui and Bacri -- once married to each other, they're a sort of Gallic Nichols and May team -- "Look at Me" is a movie of biting social observation. And it masterfully avoids Manichaean simplicity. Etienne may be a scoundrel, but he's almost childish about it. You can't help smiling at his transparent agenda. And Lolita isn't quite the victim of this story. She pulls her own power plays, for instance, on Sebastien (Keine Bouhiza), the boy about whom she's romantically unsure. La pomme doesn't fall so far from the tree, we realize.

The characters exude moral three-dimensionality; they're not built to behave or please us. They're not bound by that inflexible Hollywood contract to modify their lives and morals just in time for the ending. And because of this rampant freedom, we watch with a sort of bemused anxiety, not sure what the next moment will bring. But this uncertainty attunes us to the small, passing graces.

For instance, Lolita's singing teacher, Sylvia (played by Jaoui), pays little heed to her modestly talented, slightly heavy singer until she realizes Lolita's the daughter of Etienne. Suddenly, she takes a vast interest in Lolita's voice and well-being, also mindful that Etienne would be a good connection for her writer-husband, Pierre (Laurent Grevill). Although she normally considers herself above such things, she is also affected by the Etienne mystique.

But after she and Pierre gain access to Etienne, and Sylvia sees how Pierre becomes a willing sycophant, she comes to her own senses. She also begins to appreciate Lolita's unhappy situation. Her dawning consciousness reaches us.

Jaoui and Bacri (who also made "The Taste of Others") steadfastly refuse to let Etienne redeem himself. But there are flickers of hope. He seems to be understanding that he's cold and diffident; and when his new wife tires of him, he really starts to rethink things. While he stumbles on in his heedless way, something far more wonderful is happening. As we become closer to Lolita, and learn about her qualities and foibles, she becomes prettier by the minute, while the officially beautiful women stay dry and static. And we are gifted with a new way of looking at people and, quite possibly, life.

LOOK AT ME (PG-13, 110 minutes) -- Contains some obscenity and a sexual reference. In French with subtitles. At Landmark's Bethesda Row, Cineplex Odeon Shirlington and Landmark's E Street Cinema.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company