Beware the father who would call a daughter Lolita — an evocative name, with its leering Nabokovian associations, that flatters the bestower’s sexual vanity but does no favors to a baby girl. In the superb French comic drama Look at Me, writer-director Agnès Jaoui (The Taste of Others) knows exactly what kind of man would be so self-absorbed: He’s famous writer Etienne Cassard (the expressively sour-faced Jean-Pierre Bacri, Jaoui’s creative partner and coscreenwriter), a man oblivious to the feelings of others, including his young, sylphic second wife. Etienne is especially, exquisitely insensitive to the unhappiness of his own miserable Lolita (Marilou Berry), a plump, dumpy, angry 20-year-old who has warped her life trying unsuccessfully to get her father’s attention (when not enjoying his renown as a substitute for love).
Around the two, the wry filmmaker has created an urbane society of family and friends as ridiculously pretentious and hypocritical as they are cultured, accomplished, and posh: Comparisons with Woody Allen in his prime aren’t out of order. And then she lets them all flatter, disappoint, and deceive each other — with irresistible results. (The sparkling, perfectly constructed screenplay took home a prize last year at Cannes.) Nor does she leave herself off the hook. Jaoui also plays Sylvia, a boho-chic singing teacher married to a struggling writer (Laurent Grevill), and the couple is just as susceptible to the lures of status and the traps of phoniness as the insufferable Etienne: Sylvia’s interest in Lolita as a voice student rises immeasurably when she learns of the girl’s provenance. (Music is offered like a balm throughout the story.) And Lolita’s own bruised experience as a child of privilege doesn’t keep her from trampling on the feelings of a decent young man who dares to like her for herself.
The title Look at Me is a reasonable substitute for the original French title, Comme une Image — the English emphasizes the sadness and folly of sophisticates hiding in plain sight. But Jaoui has also said that she considered a number of others, including The Right Reasons (as in, everyone finds excuses for compromise). The ravishing vocal operatic trio included from Cosìfan tutte suggests one other headline for Jaoui’s great social study: Everyone Does It.