Dir. Agnes Jaoui, 2004, France, 110 mins
Cast: Jean-Pierre Bacri, Marilou Berry , Agnès Jaoui, Laurent Grévill
This mordant and touching comedy of manners is one of the sharpest films of the year. In the tradition of the weekend-in-the-country ensemble comedy (à la La Règle du Jeu or Smiles of a Summer Night), complete with brilliant operatic finale, Comme Une Image (winner of the Best Screenplay award in Cannes) is an acutely observed study of self-obsession that is at once satirically grotesque and compellingly recognizable.
This would not be the first film to argue that we live in a world that is ruled by image and celebrity. Though the character types are instantly familiar - the egocentric celebrity, the struggling unknown writer, the girl who doesn't fit in - the characters themselves are not merely stock figures. The film may deal with shallow people but the subtle writing and nuanced performances are richly detailed.
Etienne Cassard (Bacri) is a hugely successful writer and a literary star. From his lofty pedestal, he looks down on the sycophants that flock around him and is especially neglectful of his beautiful young wife and 20-year old daughter from a previous marriage. He is a shrewd businessman and skillfully manipulates the media machine that propels his fame, all the more important given that, it is suggested, he hasn't actually written anything for a while. His daughter ( Berry ), the inaptly named Lolita, is also self-obsessed but for different reasons. She is overweight, not hugely so, but enough to cause an adolescent girl much trauma. She sees herself as an outcast in a society whose values are dictated by TV lingerie ads. Marginalized by her own father, ignored by the good-looking boy she wants to impress and battered by a self-imposed diffidence and dowdiness, she is by turns petulant, self-pitying and resigned. Unlike her father, she is redeemed by her art - she studies singing at a conservatoire, and although she is not necessarily top of the class, she puts all her positive energy into her music. When she is singing, from the point of view of Agnès Jaoui's unsentimental camera, she becomes quite beautiful.
Into this dysfunctional setup enters a cast of incisively-drawn characters. Most important is Sylvia (Jaoui), the singing teacher of Lolita and the wife of Pierre (Grévill), a younger writer who is considering giving up writing due to his lack of recognition. Sylvia pays Lolita special attention in order to wheedle her way into Cassard's favour, thereby jump-starting Pierre 's career. Before long, Pierre , thrust into the media spotlight, has become an imitation-Cassard. Sylvia undergoes the most defined journey in the film: from her eagerness to jump on the Cassard bandwagon (and not afraid of using Lolita to do so) to, in the end, her outspoken renunciation of everything that Casssard is, Sylvia's learning curve is the focus of the drama.
The comedy results from the sheer intensity of the characters' self-regard and from the inability of Cassard and Lolita to laugh at themselves. In fact, daughter and father are not hugely different from each other. Cassard, whose young wife leaves him, bemoans the loss of the only woman that ever loved him; while Lolita almost drives away Sebastien, a Moroccan student who shows real interest in her, the only genuine affection in the film. Yet Lolita repeatedly rejects and humiliates Sebastien because she is hooked on a more conventionally-handsome boy. By wallowing in her own ridiculous self-made tragedy, by failing to see that the boy of her dreams is just an image, a good-looking face, she hinders the possibility of a genuine connection.
The characters' foibles perhaps stand for those of society at large. The outside world (all glamorous media parties, glossy TV shows and mobile phone conversations) is depicted as even more disconnected than Cassard and his society. Although this is not a film with a wide agenda, and definitely not one with morals to impart, the thought that, in a superficial society such as ours, a genuine connection with other people is threatened by the supremacy of mass-produced images is indeed sobering. When dreams are ready-made for us by the media, is it any wonder that those dreams are the cause of much misery? This eloquent, witty film makes us laugh at (and with) this misery, and wisely doesn't suggest that anything or anyone is about to change.