Ironically and appropriately, the character who voices the request of this film’s English title—“Look at me”—remains least noticed throughout. Vincent (Grégoire Oestermann), longtime, infinitely patient assistant to celebrity novelist Étienne Cassard (co-writer Jean-Pierre Bacri), hovers at the margins of most scenes, both in his employer’s existence and in the film, quietly tending to his wishes and never revealing a life of his own. When, for instance, Étienne forgets the wine he meant to bring for a dinner, Vincent offers to drive back for it: “Look at me,” he says when Étienne at first dismisses the offer. That is, Vincent means what he says: he will run the errand, tedious and predictable as it may be.
Life with Étienne is like this. Used to being yessed no matter what how small the detail, he assumes his every desire will be satisfied. But he also uses such moments of (his or others’) decision to secure his self-importance, encouraging employees, acquaintances, even family members—his 20-something wife Karine (Virginie Desarnauts) and his 20-year-old daughter Lolita (Marilou Berry)—to indulge him. Because he’s famous, he gets what he wants, even before he quite knows what that is.
Centered on the fraught relationship between aspiring singer (perhaps actor) Lolita and Étienne, Look at Me (Comme une image) is a study of fame and family, laced with strands of selfishness, and considerations of desire and resentment, coloring all. Wanting desperately to get her father’s attention, Lolita works hard at her singing, with the help of her teacher Sylvia (co-writer and director Agnès Jaoui), who remains mostly uninterested in the girl until she learns her father’s identity. At this point, the well-meaning Sylvia perks up, as her husband, Pierre (Laurent Grévill), is a novelist who needs a break; as his last book was published years before, Pierre is feeling sorry for himself, like a “kept husband,” and Sylvia decides to exploit her relationship with Lolita to advance his career.
It’s not such a terrible move, pretty typical really, and familiar to Lolita: everyone she meets knows of her father and uses her to get to him. Her sometime “boyfriend” slips her materials to hand off to Étienne while casually bringing other girls along on their movie dates; because she wants so much to be seen by someone, Lolita puts up with this behavior, but it only reinforces her understanding of the world, namely, that it revolves around her dad. It doesn’t help that Étienne thinks this as well; he offhandedly calls her his “big girl” (she’s slightly overweight, which her father assumes makes moot her career aspirations) and regularly comments on the pretty girls who sing with her. (That he does so in front of Karine as well might make her seem a standard trophy wife, but she’s surprising too, eventually revealing her own fears (“Lolita will never like me!”) and demanding that her husband pay some attention (“I feel like a chair”).
Awarded the prize for best screenplay at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the complicated, elusive, and engaging Look at Me makes repeated and careful connections among insecurities. Tellingly, Karine’s apprehensions echo Lolita’s, which correspond to Pierre’s (as he is increasingly drawn into Étienne’s sphere, he begins to act like him, mimicking his interest in pretty girls, forgetting old friends and obligations), which in turn affect Sylvia.
Lolita, in fact, has been negotiating her father’s self-absorption for so long that she now assumes it even as she rails against it. “I’m a zero,” she sobs to a new friend, Sébastien (Keine Bouhiza). Given that they “met” when he passed out drunk at her feet one evening (and she instinctively and generously covered him with her coat, not expecting to get it back), it’s clear that Sébastien has similar anxieties. But when he admits them, she can’t see him either: “Not as much as me,” she insists. Okay, Sébastien grants by his silence, she wins this contest, one that neither really wants or even fully comprehends.
And yet, the hierarchy of carelessness and egotism remains complex in this refreshingly unsentimental film, even extending to Sylvia, who might appear at first glance to be a moral center, as she does eventually call out Étienne for his cruelty to Lolita. But Sylvia makes some cutting remarks and decisions of her own, sometimes out of allegiance to Pierre, but sometimes to achieve her own measure of self-worth at someone else’s expense. It’s this intricacy of impulses and needs, feeble efforts to connect and little vengeance plots, that makes Look at Me so unusual, as social satire and familial comedy. By the time Étienne himself suffers a sense of loss—however briefly—it seems less “just desserts” than more of the same.
For while Étienne’s fame shapes the film’s array of contentions and conflicts, it’s more a symptom than a cause of the profound sense of loss that organizes everyone’s expectations. And while Lolita lives in his seeming shadow, she works hard, if not precisely consciously, to replicate the pain of this relationship in others, alternately playing her father’s role and her own. Smart and sensitive, Lolita struggles to get her father’s attention, even as he is also revealed to be vulnerable and needy, not quite forgivable, but not reductively bad either. Whether Lolita comes to see her own participation or not is left somewhat open in Look at Me. And that’s ironic and appropriate too.