More often than not, the scenes in writer/director Agnès Jaoui's Look at Me seem to begin in the middle, as if we've interrupted the characters in the course of lives that go on whether we're watching them or not. It's a subtle effect that marks the dramatic rhythm of Jaoui's very French film about a young woman struggling for love and recognition in the orbit of her famous author/father.
The author is í‰tienne Cassard -- portrayed by Jean-Pierre Bacri, Jaoui's husband off-screen, and the film's co-writer -- and he's a malevolent piece of work: arrogant, aggressive, self-absorbed, unrepentant, and free with an insult. He's also talented, and highly regarded by critics, readers and his new publisher, who says his books have "humanity and conscience" (Cassard ends this conversation, which bores him, with a feigned cell-phone call).
His twentysomething daughter Lolita (Marilou Berry) is anything but her name: She has, as they say, a pretty face, although it's somewhat round, like all of the other features on her body. Lolita's self-image is only part of her problem. Worse yet is the way her father ignores her in favor of his pretty young blond wife -- who's actually fond of Lolita and sincerely befriends her -- and his new little daughter, who wins praise from Daddy for her creativity when she draws him as a block-headed monster.
Lolita is a struggling actress who takes voice lessons from Sylvia (portrayed by Jaoui), whose husband, Pierre, has published two decent but unread books, and whose third book is good enough to earn a full page in Le Monde and the attention of Cassard. This makes Sylvia suddenly more interested in Lolita's musical education, although Cassard still ignores her. He won't even take time to listen to a tape of her singing, and Lolita has to keep reminding him that he has it.
The last important player in this intimate pastiche is a sweet young journalist (Keine Bouhiza) of Arabic descent whose given first name is Rachid, but who goes by Sébastian because, he says, "it's easier that way." (He passes easily for Euro-Mediterranean.) He and Lolita almost meet one night when he has a seizure on a busy street and she covers him with her jacket before having to leave. When he finds her to return the jacket, they begin a comfortable friendship that grows furtively into something more.
This movie's chosen English title, Look at Me, is not a translation of the French title, Comme une image, which means "like an image." It describes the movie well enough, although it's a rather blatant substitute, out of line with Jaoui's much more challenging nuance, which suggests that Lolita is something two-dimensional and disposable. She doesn't want attention in the way a child splashing in a swimming pool yells "look at me, look at me" to her parents on the lawn. She wants a more mature and earned recognition: for her effort, for her talent and, most of all, for her existence. There's no ego in Lolita's yearning, and in fact, she could use a healthy shot of self-esteem. But her father has made certain that she has none.
Like all good French cinema of this sort, which chronicles a slice of everyday human relations, Look at Me spends a lot of time just happening. Is the tomato sauce ready to take off the burner? Did he remember to bring the wine? Should she buy the racy red blouse? Jaoui constructs many concise scenes around moments and situations like these. And yet, I don't want to give the impression that her film is mundane: The dramatic tension between the characters is always quietly palpable, and the actors perform in an absorbingly offhanded way.
Here and there in Look at Me, Jaoui pokes fun at trivial cinema. One character calls Westerns "boring -- the same thing over and over," and another laments poor Cassard, whose fine novel becomes an "idiotic tearjerker" on screen. She's right, of course, especially about Hollywood, although Look at Me sometimes feels a bit more soapy than episodic, with gently dulled edges that occasionally strike too low a key, and with some leaps in narrative time that give a sense of how life goes on without significant highlight or impact. Her actors would never play leads like this in an American film -- both of the writer characters are bald and middle-aged -- and an actress like Berry, who's plump all around, would certainly be a comedienne, or else an object of pathos or pity.
Jaoui uses the first several scenes of Look at Me to accent the conflicts that will soon unfold in the drama. Lolita can't get a surly taxi driver to show her any respect; when her father enters the cab and takes control, the cabbie addresses him as "sir." Pierre mopes and moans about his failed books, calling himself a kept man; Sylvia reassures him and praises his prose. Even before the first image appears on screen, we meet Lolita as a sort of feminist icon: "Breathe ... exhale," says a disembodied voice (it's Sylvia), and then Lolita begins to sing a German opera, the perfect musical genre for the woman whose life we're about to engage. In French, with subtitles.