'Look at Me': Beauty in All Its Many Guises

Marilou Berry (seated, with Virginie Desarnauts) plays Lolita, the shy daughter of a narcissistic author in the smart, absorbing
Marilou Berry (seated, with Virginie Desarnauts) plays Lolita, the shy daughter of a narcissistic author in the smart, absorbing "Look at Me." (By Jean-paul Dumas-grillet -- Sony Pictures Classics)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 29, 2005

At a time when grown-ups are more and more hard-pressed to find rewarding experiences at the movie theater, we can be especially grateful for Agnes Jaoui, an accomplished French actress who recently has turned her talents to directing. In 2001 she made an auspicious debut with "The Taste of Others," a highly praised romantic roundelay. With her new film, "Look at Me," Jaoui sets her wryly observant sights on family, artistic ambition and the tyranny of physical appearance, and the result is a bright, briskly moving film whose modest scale belies the universality of its themes.

In fact, don't even bother finishing this review. See "Look at Me" now, before movie screens get swallowed up by Christian crusaders, steroidal superheroes and Sith warriors.

Set in Paris amid authors, artists, musicians and the ingenues and sycophants who hang around them, "Look at Me" centers on a young woman named Lolita (Marilou Berry), a shy, generously built singer with a beautiful voice. As the film opens, Lolita is in a taxicab, listening to herself on tape and embarking on a series of miscommunications with the driver and the person at the other end of her cell phone. The scene aptly captures the movie's cardinal themes of crossed wires and missed connections, as its protagonists continually see through and talk past each other.

Lolita, it turns out, is the daughter of the famous author Etienne Cassard (Jean-Pierre Bacri), who steadfastly ignores his firstborn and instead focuses intently on his trophy girlfriend and 5-year-old daughter. It's an indication of Cassard's blinkered narcissism that he would saddle his daughter with such a freighted first name; not surprisingly, he has never heard her sing, and continually refers to her as "my big girl."

Lolita is used to such stinging emotional rebukes, and weathers them with a beleaguered resignation. When she is unexpectedly pursued by an attractive journalist (Keine Bouhiza), she figures he only wants to meet her father. Similarly, her prickly singing teacher Sylvia (Jaoui) takes a sudden interest in Lolita upon learning who her father is; maybe getting to know her student will help her writer-husband's stalled literary career.

And so it goes in "Look at Me," with the shifting motivations of its funny, engaging characters finally coming to a head at an attractive house in the country. Jaoui, who wrote "Look at Me" with Bacri, her husband, does an expert job of moving the narrative along at a bright clip while putting each of her protagonists through deep but subtle changes. Jaoui's character, for example, starts out as a brittle woman possessed of an unseemly, even cruel, careerist streak. With time, however, Sylvia's sharp edges soften, her chilly reserve melting into a compassion all the more moving for being so unexpected.

Maybe because Jaoui and Bacri are actors themselves, they know how to write juicy roles for their co-stars, and every actor in "Look at Me" delivers a flawless, often quietly funny performance. What's more, the movie is full of terrific music, mostly sung by the angelic Berry and a gifted group of singers who play a student ensemble.

Indeed, despite its title, "Look at Me" is really all about being heard, but as Lolita's dogged attempts to get her father's attention make clear, what we hear is all too often a function of what we see. But Jaoui takes even this piece of conventional wisdom and tweaks it a little, subverting the usual trope of self-discovery and empowerment by instead portraying her hero as someone who recognizes the light in another. The climactic moment of "Look at Me" is one of quiet, lyrical triumph, and it's every bit in keeping with the many joys of this smart, absorbing movie.

Look at Me (110 minutes, in French with subtitles, at Landmark's Bethesda Row and E Street and Cineplex Odeon Shirlington) is rated PG-13 for brief obscenity and a sexual reference.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company