Look at Me is a new film that is French in the best sense of the word. French cinema is often justly vilified for being vague, tedious, and meandering. Look at Me turns those negatives to positives-it's subtle, moving, and surprising.
Look at Me (rated PG-13 for brief language and a sexual reference) was written by the husband-and-wife team of Jean-Pierre Bacri and Agnès Jaoui. Both also star in the film, and Ms. Jaoui directs. Mr. Bacri plays Étienne Cassard: successful novelist and publisher, a man in whose circle many aspire to be, through a combination of awe and self-interest. Yet Étienne is also a colossal boor who steps on and abuses everyone around him. His eldest daughter, Lolita (played by Marilou Berry), is the one person in Étienne's orbit who's there by obligation rather than choice.
Lolita is a familiar figure in film. She's overweight, plain, and unpopular. Like her father, other people tend to look through or past her. Lolita is often miserable, regularly frustrated by unrealized dreams. Yet this is where Look at Me gets interesting. An American film would tend to follow one of two paths. A Hollywood production would make Lolita's story one of inspirational self-discovery, complete with a makeover, a hot boyfriend, and a final scene of crowning triumph (see anything by Hillary Duff). An American independent would likely wallow in grotesquery, heaping horror upon horror on Lolita and making the people around her into monsters (see anything by Todd Solondz).
Instead, Ms. Jaoui has made a film that examines the subtleties of self-perception and appearance. Lolita, in her misery and self-pity, is often as adept at pushing people away and crushing good intentions as is her egotistical father.
The pleasure of Look at Me is found in Ms. Jaoui's ability to turn our expectations on their head, both in character and plot development. Her reliance on small slights and offhand remarks, rather than grand atrocities, gives her characters the depth of real people.