‘Look at Me’ delves into the dangers of beauty
June 21, 2005
Our obsession with physical beauty is an insidious thing, damaging relationships with those we should love, diverting our attention from proper pursuits, ruining our self-esteem. The fascination with human physical looks – the color of an eye, the shape of a breast, the texture of hair – is so pervasive that it is generally accepted as fact and therefore rarely examined.
The French film “Look at Me,” however, examines the subject of physical attractiveness in a way that is more than skin-deep. Directed by Agnès Jaoui and co-written by Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri – both of whom star in the film – “Look at Me” uses an ensemble cast in Woody Allen-esque fashion to dissect the values of contemporary society. (Fans of Allen’s better work, including “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” will find something familiar in the cultured, prosperous society that populates “Look at Me.”)The film’s protagonist, Lolita, is not Nabokov’s Lolita. Played by Marilou Berry, the Lolita of “Look at Me” is an overweight teenager with an eternally gloomy demeanor. That downbeat attitude results from a combination of factors: the shortage of attention she gets from her father, Étienne (Bacri), a worshipped author and publisher; her father’s second marriage to a much younger, very pretty woman, Karine (Virginie Desarnauts); and the demands of the couple’s 5-year-old daughter. Then there’s the fact that the male attention Lolita does get is invariably from young men seeking access to her father. As prominent as any of those factors is Lolita’s own drab self-image.Lolita does not lack gifts entirely. A classical singer of some promise, she is arranging a church concert of vocal music, a plot thread that runs through the film. But rather than receiving encouragement, Lolita’s ambitions are knocked down by her father’s indifference. At the beginning of the story, Lolita hands her father a cassette of her music; by the end of the film, six months later, the package is still unopened. Add in Étienne’s habits of interrupting their conversations to answer his cell phone, casually commenting on the good looks of women around him, and the really bad habit of calling Lolita his “big girl,” and we see the powder keg being lit under her.
Nearly as corrupting as physical beauty in “Look at Me” is the attraction to power. One by one, characters suck up to Étienne, none of them worse than Sylvia (played by director Jaoui). As Lolita’s vocal coach, Sylvia decides she doesn’t have enough time to give Lolita extra attention for the upcoming concert. Then she learns who Lolita’s father is and realizes that giving Lolita more of her time could win her husband, Pierre (Laurent Grevill), a struggling novelist, access to Étienne. Of course she then makes room in her schedule, and Pierre practically becomes Étienne’s appendage, accommodating and excusing all his cruelties.This pessimistic angle on humanity doesn’t translate into a bitter movie. “Look at Me” understands its characters, even in their worst moments. And it finds small bits of hope, especially in the beauty of art, which is a contrast to the more accidental beauty of a face or body. Lolita does have her triumphant moment – make that quasi-triumphant; this is, after all, not a Hollywood product.
“Look at Me” shows Sunday and Monday, June 26-27, at Paepcke Auditorium as part of the SummerFilms series, co-presented by Aspen Filmfest and the Aspen Music Festival and School.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com