Look at Me (French)

We have this image of the French, that they’re all upper-class cigarette-smoking, wine-drinking, cheese-eating, literature-reading, artsy-movie-watching snobs. “Look at Me” is about those kinds of French people, though it suggests they’re really more a subset than the majority. But they’re not fooling me. They’re ALL like that, I know it.

The characters are all satellites orbiting Etienne Cassard (Jean-Pierre Bacri, also the co-writer), a precise, impatient author whose latest widely acclaimed masterpiece has just been made into a sappy film that he hates. He hates, or at least has limited tolerance, for most things, in fact, and if you are speaking to him, you may be assured that he is not listening.

Despite this, the number of people who fawn all over him grows daily. His daughter, Lolita (Marilou berry), a plain-faced, slightly overweight college student, desperately needs his approval and attention, and despises him because of it. (That she usually fails to get what she needs from him just intensifies her bitterness.) Etienne’s very young second wife Karine (Virginie Desarnauts) dotes on him and wants his attention. A man named Vincent (Gregoire Oestermann) has no clear connection to him — he’s not a business associate or really even a friend — yet remains by his side constantly. Another character says Vincent’s job is to be Etienne’s “sidekick,” and that’s about right.

Lolita’s voice instructor, Sylvia (Agnes Jaoui, also co-writer and director), who is second only to Etienne on the list of people Lolita idolizes, has a husband named Pierre (Laurent Grevill) who is also an author, albeit a far less successful one. When Sylvia learns who Lolita’s father is, she suddenly becomes much more interested in her pupil, her agenda being to put the famed wordsmith into the same social circles as her struggling husband. Lolita is used to this kind of manipulation, where people use her to get close to her father, but it still stings.

For her part, Lolita is hung up on a guy named Mathieu (Julien Baumgartner), who, predictably, is more interested in her dad. But she meets a new guy named Sebastian (Keine Bouhiza), a nice fellow with what seem to be honest intentions. Unfortunately, she can’t stop thinking about Mathieu.

All these figures whirl around Etienne like devoted puppies, eagerly seeking to impress or delight him. It’s a film full of selfish, needy people, people who are always being interrupted by cell phones and who always want to be with someone other than who they’re with.

The film works, though, because with the exception of Etienne, who really is an insufferable, short-tempered bastard, we like and identify with everyone. Lolita’s self-consciousness, Pierre’s frustration, Karine’s loneliness — it all hits home, in one way or another, for all of us.

The lifestyle of the characters is almost as important as the characters themselves. You read about these people in old European novels, upper-crust types who go away for a weekend to their country house, where the cook makes tarragon rabbit, which even the people who hate rabbit eat, because they want to fit in with the host. Authors are recognized on the street, and people watch literary programs on the Parisian television stations. As ripe as this sort of behavior is for mockery, as puffed-up as some of these clods are, they remain accessible — even ordinary — in the film, like the kind of people that slobs like us know, too.

Is “Look at Me” a response to the dim view Americans have of the French? Is the idea to show us that they’re regular people, too? Probably not. The film was made in France for a French audience; that we’re seeing it at all was probably an afterthought. I suspect the idea was simply to show people as they are, warts and all. As it turns out, Bacri and Jaoui happens to have a soft spot for their countrymen, which results in a warm, funny movie for us to like, too.

B (1 hr., 46 min.; French with subtitles; PG-13, a little profanity, some mild sexuality.)