Monday, May 16, 2005

Comme une Image

Agnès Jaoui's Comme une Image --wow. It's playing in theatres under the title "Look at Me," which is a line uttered by the film's central character, Lolita Cassard (played by Marilou Berry), who craves the attention of her father primarily, and secondarily everybody who comes into her life. Lolita's father, Étienne (Jean-Pierre Bacri), ensconced in his own celebrity as an author, can't be bothered to celebrate daughters, wives or friends. But he does make an effort to keep up appearances. Vainly. His efforts are as phony as the phoniness he means to prop up, and it shows.

If you remember Bacri from Jaoui's first feature, The Taste of Others, you might be surprised at his ability to convincingly play such an unsympathetic cad as Étienne Cassard. Étienne, however, is not merely presented as an object of malevolence for viewers. Insofar as we come to care about Lolita--no easy task, as she herself is deeply flawed--we want to see her wishes fulfilled. She wants her father to notice her, to listen to her, to listen to her sing. Is that asking for too much? For Étienne, yes, that is too much. Our frustration with the character never ends, and yet it seems that our frustation mirrors his frustration with himself. Étienne cannot be happy as a writer unless his life in his shambles, and if the world won't conspire to do him in, he's only too ready to do the job. For the sake of his art? Or his reputation as an author? We have reason to question the depth of Étienne's commitment to his work or his self-loathing. Nevertheless, while it is easy to hate the things he says and does, it is rather difficult to hate the person who may join us in hating those same things.

The translation of the title as "Look at me" colored my initial sense of what the film was about. It's about vanity and narcissism. It's about needing attention, how primary attachments form under the attentive gaze, and in its absence. The film comments on the invisibility of women, which many critics have rightly identified as one of the film's central themes. It also presents a strong critique of the ideal female body image--Lolita is a chubby young woman who resists internalizing a negative view of herself, yet in the accommodations she makes to get by in her cultural world, that negativity never completely disappears. Lolita's constant struggle with and against the third-class status ascribed to her shapes the way she interacts with others in every aspect. Had the film been called in English "Pretty as a picture," or "Like a picture" perhaps that theme would have jumped out, but then it may have been misleading in other ways. Comme un Image reflects on the beautiful: the beautiful body, the beautiful voice, beauty as attainment, artifice and simulation. It's also very much a film about narcissism and selfishness, so "Look at me" seems to sum it up rather well.

Jaoui and Bacri, who share writing credits, have already won several awards for the script. The performances are uniformly excellent. Comme un Image, though, does not feel like merely a play brought before the camera. It speaks a cinematic language, communicating through syntax, tempo and an adroit use of music. The cinematography is not vividly earth-shattering, but there are a couple of memorable scenes, such as when Lolita tracks down Sébastien on her bicycle, at once breathtaking and understated. All in all it's a brilliant film, easily the best so far this year.

posted by Fido the Yak at 6:15 PM.


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