In Look at Me, Parisian Power Elite Satirized to Sublime Strains of Mozart

Agnès Jaoui’s Comme une Image ( Look at Me), from a screenplay by Ms. Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri, opened the 42nd annual New York Film Festival with a certain flair and panache that we’ve come to expect from the Jaoui-Bacri writing and acting team, which has been responsible for such sparkling comedies of good manners and bad as Le Goût des Autres ( The Taste of Others, 2000), On Connaît la Chanson ( Same Old Song, 1997) and Un Air de Famille) ( Family Resemblances, 1996). Their detractors in France tend to dismiss them as heavy-handed, moralizing boulevard farceurs, but American audiences seem to enjoy their satiric thrusts at the French bourgeoisie—who are, after all, not that far removed from their American counterparts.

Look at Me begins with a somewhat plump young girl—ironically named Lolita (Marilou Berry)—in the back of a Paris taxicab. She’s trying to placate the surly driver, who is complaining about losing money while waiting for two additional passengers, Lolita’s middle-aged father, a literary lion named Etienne (Jean-Pierre Bacri), and his pretty—and much younger—second wife, Karine (Virginie Desarnauts). The first big laughs of the movie come when the bad-tempered Etienne arrives and snarls back at the cab driver, as if Parisians were trying to mimic the fabled incivility of New Yorkers. No wonder we Manhattanites respond to the Jaoui-Bacri team: They’re closer to George S. Kaufman than anyone now working in currently infantilized Hollywood, with the possible exception of Woody Allen at his best (and he has never really been part of the industry’s “open wide” ethos).

Having subdued the now-cowering cabdriver, Etienne and his two female companions take the cab to a bustling celebrity event with free food and drink—one that’s drawn a long line of invited guests and wannabe attendees, with a muscular bouncer at the entrance meticulously inspecting everyone’s credentials. Etienne and Karine sweep their way in while the hapless Lolita lingers on the sidewalk to take a cell-phone call from her boyfriend, Mathieu (Julien Baumgartner). The call unsatisfactorily concluded, Lolita tries to join her father and stepmother inside, but the burly guard bars her from entering. Lolita is suddenly distracted by a young man—we learn much later that he’s named Sébastien (Keine Bouhiza)—who drunkenly passes out by the curb. Lolita impulsively takes off her jacket to cover the lightly clad Sébastien, whom she doesn’t know from Adam. This, and her earlier attempts to reason with the rude cab driver, are our first clues to the identity of the main protagonist in this multi-character comedy.

Once Karine comes outside to fetch Lolita, the focus shifts to four new characters waiting far back on the line. Only much later are these four apparent nobodies identified as Pierre (Laurent Grévill), a still-obscure novelist; Sylvia (Agnès Jaoui), his wife, a singing instructor; Edith (Michele Moretti), Pierre’s elderly editor; and Félix (Serge Riaboukine), his photographer friend and a prospective collaborator on his book. As the four move slowly toward the front of the line, Sylvia and Edith start to argue about which one was supposed to bring the tickets. At this point, the already impatient Pierre breaks away from the group and heads for home; realizing that they don’t have tickets, the others reluctantly follow.

Inside the club, Etienne displays more bad manners toward lesser colleagues, cruel condescension toward his culturally insecure young wife, and cold indifference to his ugly-duckling young daughter. In record time, he reveals himself to be a monster of mean-spirited snobbery and self-absorption right out of Molière. Eventually, these two separate groups are going to merge to form the narrative nucleus—a scathing satire of the rat race in the power-and-celebrity-addled milieu of Parisian writing and publishing.

For a time, Etienne’s relentless rudeness is funny, but as more and more characters spin into his orbit, his cruelty toward others, and their almost masochistic submission to such abuse, become institutionally sinister. We see that Etienne is the way that he is because too many people allow him to be. He is simply a literary variant of Donald Trump, wallowing in his own arrogance and self-adoration. Etienne even has a full-time stooge, Vincent (Grégoire Oestermann), formally an “assistant,” whom he insults incessantly without fear of reprisal.

For her part, Lolita has long ago realized that Etienne doesn’t love her or anybody else, for that matter, besides himself. Her mother, Etienne’s first wife, abandoned him to go live in the Antilles. Worse still, Lolita has come to expect that the few men in her life will only pretend to be attracted to her in hopes of currying favor with her powerful father. Her current boyfriend, Mathieu, for example, is preparing to dump her after getting what he wants from Etienne. Ms. Berry, the daughter in real life of the celebrated French character actress Josiane Balasco, plays Lolita with an interesting mixture of vulnerability and defiance.

When we return to the second circle formed by Pierre and Sylvia, we discover that Lolita is a pupil of Sylvia’s, who has been resisting her entreaties for more singing lessons—until Sylvia discovers that Etienne is her father. Lolita grins (or groans?) inwardly as she realizes that even a woman she admires is dazzled by Etienne’s eminence as both a writer and publisher. For her part, Sylvia is thinking only of the help that Pierre will get in promoting his new novel once he’s seen in the company of Etienne.

All these proceedings would be harsh and sordid if they were not softened by the sublime music of Mozart, Schubert, Handel and Beethoven, sung by the choral group to which Lolita belongs, and in which she finds a spiritual salve to the persistent pain in her heart. Music, the art to which all the other arts aspire, expresses the final romantic redemption of a fat girl brutalized by a universal conspiracy of brainwashed-by-the-media anorexia worshippers. Mozart has never served a nobler purpose.

Pumping Kerry

George Butler’s Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, written by Joseph Dorman and based on Douglas Brinkley’s book Tour of Duty, is nothing if not timely with the recent Presidential debate and the coming election less than a month off. Indeed, Mr. Kerry seems to have been going upriver all throughout the current campaign, what with his enemies questioning his war record and his supporters bad-mouthing him for his lack of electoral charisma, as well as his use of overelaborate rhetoric, with compound sentences and subjunctive clauses directed toward a public hungry for pithy sound bites. Meanwhile, George W. Bush’s admirers talk about their man as if he were another Abraham Lincoln, despite the fact that he’s come close to undoing all the advances in social justice forged by the New Deal and the Great Society. (A demagogue at the recent Republican convention even had the nerve to invoke the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in support of Dubya.)

Mr. Butler’s film opens with footage of Mr. Kerry’s childhood and youth, leading to his service in Vietnam and his subsequent antiwar activities. This should be revelatory to most people—but most people will probably never see Mr. Butler’s film, and certainly none of those who consider George W. Bush as next to God. Curiously, there was always something of the aristocrat about Mr. Kerry, even when we see him leading a rag-tag group of scruffy Vietnam veterans with long hair, beards and counterculture ornamentation. In this volatile situation, Mr. Kerry managed to keep the demonstrations nonviolent. When he was invited by Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas to address the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the 27-year-old vet responded with a speech so eloquent that the entire chamber was moved to wild applause. Where was that eloquence, I thought to myself, in the current campaign? Well, flashes of it showed up in the debate with Mr. Bush, and I suspect that more and more of it will appear in the future.

Throughout his political career, Mr. Kerry has been a slow starter and a big finisher. He was written off in the Presidential primaries to the point that his poll numbers were lower than Al Sharpton’s, and then boom!—the Iowa primary exploded in all the pundits’ faces. Some years before, he was written off completely in a Senatorial race against the popular Massachusetts Governor William Weld, and all it took was one debate to turn the race around in his favor.

What Mr. Kerry has realized, and his more radical supporters have not, is that Iraq is different from Vietnam in that there was no 9/11 preceding our involvement in Southeast Asia, whereas the 9/11 attacks provided rhetorical cover for Mr. Bush’s invasion of Iraq—something that Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon didn’t have. It may turn out that Mr. Kerry was wise to walk the difficult and dangerous tightrope he’s been on between staying the course in Iraq and packing up and running. Would Howard Dean have done better? I don’t think so.

What amuses me is that Mr. Bush was at pains to praise Mr. Kerry’s war record during the debate—and this after his camp’s calculated smear campaign against the Massachusetts Senator, spearheaded by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which in turn was organized by an ancient Kerry archenemy, John O’Neill.

How ancient is he? Mr. Butler elucidates in a program-note interview: “I ran into John O’Neill on the fringes of the anti-war movement back in 1971 at the Dick Cavett shows with John Kerry. The fact of the matter is that Richard Nixon, John O’Neill, Charles Colson, Ehrlichman, Haldeman and the whole White House were dying to get Kerry in those days. But the bottom line for me is that if the Nixon White House, with J. Edgar Hoover and the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. at their disposal, could not bring John Kerry down (and as you remember in my film, Colson said ‘we couldn’t find anything on John Kerry’), it seems rather extraordinary that 35 years later, suddenly John O’Neill and the Swift Boat unit have ‘discovered’ that John Kerry was actually lying about his entire experience in Vietnam.” Indeed, The New York Times and responsible members of the media have laid out a pretty clear series of facts that contradict what Mr. O’Neill has been saying.

The movie also reveals Nixon, on his famous (or infamous) tapes, invoking Mr. Kerry’s resemblance to the Kennedys; little did he know that his anti-war nemesis would one day be running for President of the United States. Certainly Mr. Kerry has been inspired by John F. Kennedy. But though many lament the fact that he doesn’t have anything near J.F.K.’s charisma, Kennedy himself came very close to losing to Nixon in 1960—and with an honest count in Mayor Daley’s Chicago, he might well have. Now as then, the electorate is evenly divided. I hope that now as then, the debate proves to mark the turning point in the campaign.

Mr. Butler makes no bones about his friendship with John Kerry, which fills every frame of the film. Ironically, it was he who put Arnold Schwarzenegger on the media map in 1977 with Pumping Iron —a movie that Mr. Kerry helped to fund. Even then, Pumping Iron stamped Arnie as the kind of bully who would one day insult men who’d served in real wars—not mere sci-fi counterfeits—as “girly men” simply for trying to spend rich people’s money to help the poor.