Look At Me (Comme Une Image) Review

The writing/directing team of Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri is one of the great successes in modern popular French cinema. They have scripted for Alain Resnais on his Smoking/No Smoking (1993) duo of films, as well as scripting and acting together in his musical comedy On Connait La Chanson (1997) and on Cédric Kaplisch’s Un Air de Famille (1996). Their first collaboration with Jaoui directing, Le Goût des Autres, a modest little comedy of manners and relationships, was a great success in 2001, winning four of its nine César nominations and earning an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film. Their latest collaboration – and perhaps their last if stories about the break-up of their partnership are true – Look at Me (Comme Une Image) is another wonderful look at the rich complexities of relationships.

Lolita (Marilou Berry) is an overweight young girl with a few problems in her life, but a tremendous singing voice. Her father, the famous writer Etienne Cassard (Jean-Pierre Bacri) is however too wrapped up in his celebrity lifestyle and the attentions demanded by his new family – a younger wife and small child – to be concerned with Lolita’s efforts to become a singer. Lolita’s singing teacher Sylvia (Agnès Jaoui) has problems of her own – a writer husband, Pierre (Laurent Grévil) who is waiting for his first big break – so when she finds out that her student is actually the daughter of a writer she greatly admires, Sylvia can’t help but give Lolita a little more attention, agreeing to help coach a small amateur choir the young girl is working with.

Lolita understandably has issues with self-image, since she receives no encouragement or even acknowledgement from her father, who has never even listened to a tape of her singing. She also receives some rather cruel setbacks from a boy she is infatuated with, Mathieu, who is happy to see her when it suits him, but clearly doesn’t have any real romantic interest in her. When Lolita helps a young man outside a bar where her father is holding one of his functions, she becomes friendly with Sébastien, but her infatuation with Mathieu, and her own poor self-image – believing that she is only of interest to people because she has a famous father who can pull strings for them – prevents her from seeing how much he really likes her.

Her father meanwhile hasn’t been able to write anything for a long time now, but hopes that his association with an up-and-coming writer like Pierre Miller will be beneficial for both of them. He invites Pierre and Sylvia out to his country house, to discuss signing a contract and securing good representation for the writer’s burgeoning career. The weekend and subsequent events bring out a lot of realisations about people’s true motivations and the ties that hold their personal and business relationships together.

As an ensemble piece, Look At Me is meticulously put together, brilliantly capturing the psychological inner lives of each of the characters and delineating the complex threads of the relationships that exist between each one of them. The characterisation is brilliantly observed and meticulously played, each of the characters an intense web of emotions and hang-ups, their relationships with different people tempered by their shyness or over-confidence. But these are not merely easily categorisable characters looking for love, validation and attention as the English title of the film suggests. The French title of the film (“Comme une image”) is much more evocative than the English title, coming from the term ‘Sage comme une image’, the French equivalent of “As good as gold”. The “comme une image” on its own also suggests to me the mirroring of characters in the film and the corresponding surface impressions this implies. These characters are being held up a mirror on their own lives and they need to decide if they like what they see. One writer, Cassard, is already a success but is currently struggling to write anything meaningful – the other writer is on the verge of success and has the choices to make ahead of him. Cassard represents a looking-glass image of what Pierre aspires to. Pierre needs to look closely into the mirror and choose whether it is the route of quick money, fame and TV chat shows he wants or whether he is really dedicated to his craft, while Cassard is presented with what he has lost – the fire of inspiration and the potential to be creative. Lolita is in the same position with regards to the men in her life – while she is chasing the illusion that Mathieu really cares about her, she is unaware that Sébastien is her mirror image, himself the object of prejudice because of his North African origins, and more likely to be sincere and sympathetic to her circumstances – but because of her own low self-esteem, the image she sees reflected in the mirror isn’t one she finds attractive.

The mirror images are there – and are further explored right through to each of the writers’ wives and other supporting characters – but this is not just a straightforward film of contrasts and parallels. The complexity of the characters is more subtle and human than that and they are all equally capable of making selfish decisions and judgements. Although she later comes to understand and sympathise with Lolita’s situation, Silvia, the singing teacher played by Jaoui, initially only helps the girl because of the connections to her father that will help her husband’s writing career. The act itself isn’t completely selfish, since she is doing it for her husband, but there is also the argument (or maybe self-justification), that everyone benefits from the arrangement, since Lolita gets special attention in her singing lessons. Lolita herself is no saint either, capable of making stupid decisions and being similarly insensitive and prejudiced about other people as they can be with her, failing to see beneath surfaces. You also have to question whether she also uses her father’s fame and celebrity to her advantage when it suits her. The film is full of similar intriguing moral situations and rich characters, none of which can be simply painted as either good or bad, sensitive or uncaring, self-absorbed or helpful.

To complement this depth in the fine character detail that the rich script brings out (the script won Best Screenplay at Cannes in 2004), the acting in Comme Une Image is similarly simply marvellous, never underlining when subtle nuance will suggest more effectively, allowing the viewer to put themselves in their position and identify more closely. This is an absorbing film, that demands the viewer put themselves in the characters’ place, and the performances of the actors allows you to do this. To add further to the equation, the music plays an important part in the film, not just as a plot device or soundtrack, but as an expression of the character of Lolita, of her aspirations and emotional capacity. Its presence is pervasive in the film, emotionally resonant and extremely effective.

Look at Me (Comme Une Image) is released in the UK by Pathé. The DVD is encoded for Region 2.

The video quality is rather soft and has perhaps suffered slightly from including a one-hour ‘making of’ onto the same disc as an almost two hour film. Minor digital artefacts can be seen, colour tones are strong but exhibit chroma noise, cross colouration and minor edge enhancement. Additionally, a blue edge can often be seen when figures are set against bright backgrounds. I found this to be the most irritating aspect of an otherwise average-to-good transfer, since in the main these are minor problems. The only real issues most people will have with the transfer while viewing it through normal playback will be the slight softness and some visible grain. The picture does often look good and I might have been more generous in my rating of the video quality if the subtitles were not also fixed distractingly on the image. The film however should certainly look better than it does here.

The audio is strong and appropriately downplayed, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix sounding for the most part like a 1.0 mix. There is really no widening out of the sound at all – although occasionally a subtle reverb gives the film a warmer tone and ambience – but this is scarcely perceptible and it shouldn’t really be drawing attention away from the dialogue and acting anyway.

English subtitles are provided and, for some unfathomable reason, are fixed but not burnt into the transfer or the print. Some players might be able to remove them, but I wasn't able to. They are excessively large and intrusive on the film, half in and half out of the 2.35:1 frame. See sample below:

Making Of (1:01:07)
A very long ‘making of’ covers many of the aspects of making the film in great detail – from Marilou Berry’s screen test and auditions for her singing voice through to costume tests, rehearsals and the actual shooting of many scenes in the film. I was astounded to find out that Agnès Jaoui is not dubbed, but has an amazing singing voice, and it is also nice that the girl who provides the singing voice of Marilou Berry gets her moment on the screen. The downside to this kind of information - knowing what is going on in the background, having seen the actors continually rehearse their lines and reshoot numerous takes - is that I found it took me out of the film when I watched it again and it detracts from the characters. There are no interviews as the focus is very much – perhaps too much – on the technical side of filmmaking. Having said that, I quite enjoyed this feature and, as far as showing how a film is made, it’s comprehensive and very professionally put together with multiple cameras and split screens. It’s in 4:3 aspect ratio, broken down into 31 chapters and has fixed English subtitles.

Theatrical Trailer (2:02)
The trailer is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic (which is not the film’s aspect ratio).

Photo Gallery
A very nice picture gallery of 30 original colour still photographs.

Comme Une Image was one of the biggest foreign language hits in the UK last year and it’s easy to see why. This is a film that doesn’t rely on the Hollywood model of familiar situations and stock characters, but explores the true nature of relationships between people in an intelligent and nuanced way. Rather than presenting the viewer with easy answers, it presents an absorbing drama of real characters and real emotions and asks the viewer to figure it all out, identify with it and think about it. You’ll take away much more from this film than just a few hours entertainment. Pathé’s UK DVD release is adequate, presenting the film reasonably well, but not exceptionally, with a worthwhile selection of extra features.

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Last updated: 15/06/2018 11:45:20

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