Through the looking glass

Introspective narcissism from the French

“Look at me” is the primal request we carry with us throughout our lives, sometimes a murmur, sometimes a shout. It’s the kernel of need that drives our relationships, our creativity, our desire to please or displease or to somehow make our mark. In this French drama, various types of neediness are depicted, with touches of dry humor, from the emotional hunger of a neglected child to the self-absorption of a successful adult. Against a backdrop of music that achieves an exquisite sort of perfection, foolish mortals stumble about, full of suspicious thoughts and misunderstandings.

Lolita Cassard (Marilou Berry) is the 20-year-old daughter of a famous author, Étienne Cassard (Jean-Pierre Bacri). Lolita is overweight and painfully self-conscious about it, an unhappy situation made more difficult by her neglectful father. Étienne has a young trophy wife — who doesn’t look much older than Lolita — and a single-minded dedication to his work. He’s a bit of a cold fish, but especially distant when it comes to Lolita, whom he refers to, in a clueless attempt at affection, as his “big girl.”

Lolita is a classical singer who performs with a small group that specializes in Handel and Mozart pieces. Her voice teacher Sylvia (Agnès Jaoui) is only mildly encouraging — until she finds out Lolita’s father is Étienne, someone Sylvia greatly admires. It just so happens (this is the type of film with a lot of “it just so happens” moments) that her husband Pierre (Laurent Grévill) is also a novelist, but one with only middling success compared to the prestigious Étienne. So Sylvia becomes more involved with Lolita’s singing and her husband is soon hobnobbing in public with the great writer, much to the benefit of his flagging career. As Pierre’s fortunes increase, Sylvia begins to learn that great artists aren’t necessarily great people. In fact, some of them can be real bastards.

As with her work, The Taste of Others, Jaoui directs the film and co-wrote the screenplay with Bacri, who is her ex-husband. In Taste, the high-culture backdrop that contrasted with fumbling characters was a production of Racine’s Berenice, and the film’s deliberate pace slowly led to a rapturous ending. Look at Me doesn’t juggle its characters quite so smoothly and the end is fairly predictable, though satisfying. Jaoui and Bacri may be too civil to concoct an actual satire — they may metaphorically slap a character around a little but they won’t make them bleed — yet this droll chamber piece is humane and intelligent in a gracefully unpretentious manner.


In French with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and at 4 p.m. Sundays, April 29-May 1, and May 6-8. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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