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Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2004

It's French, but not French

Comme une image

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Agnes Jaoui
Running time: 111 minutes
Language: French (Japanese subtitles)
Opens Oct. 30
[See Japan Times movie listings]

French directors often make movies that are simply too French -- i.e., the characters are femme fatales in impeccable outfits, or love-struck men drowning their sorrows in Calvados; while the backdrop is littered with French icons (baguettes, Parisian streets, cafes, etc.). But the Agnes Jaoui/Jean-Pierre Bacri acting/filmmaking team has always avoided this pigeonholing.

News photo
Jean-Pierre Bacri and Marilou Berry in "Comme une image"

Their stories are intensely personal and at the same time wholly universal, with characters who could be from anywhere in the Western world. Maybe this is why the French public love Bacri-Jaoui -- or, as my friend Didier puts it: "They tell stories that free us from the burden of being French."

"Comme une image (Like a Picture)" is their latest, and some say best, work. Contrary to the title, there's nothing picture-pretty about this intricate and detailed drawing of various egos. The characters subtly navigate around each other, but there are collisions and full-on crashes as they try to assert themselves while struggling with complexes at times furtively hidden and at other times brashly exposed.

The most vulnerable of the lot is Lolita (Marilou Berry), a girl in her early 20s aspiring to be a singer. Lolita is the daughter of celebrated novelist Etienne (Bacri), and has a lot of privileges at her disposal. She is, however, overweight, lacking in confidence and resentful of her father's gorgeous second wife, Karine (Virginie Desarnauts), who is only a few years older than she.

Karine means well but has no idea how to get along with the prickly Lolita, who takes every other remark as a criticism of her weight. Etienne, however, is oblivious to both his daughter's plight and his wife's discomfort. He uses Lolita as a baby-sitter (for the baby daughter he had with Karine) and the rest of the time hardly seems to notice her. Like most neglected daughters, Lolita is desperate for her father's love and approval, but at the same time she's well aware of what a selfish bastard he is.

Indeed, Etienne is a monster of self-absorption, but his charisma and success attracts a bevy of admirers. Lolita knows the drill: On her own she can't attract anyone, but the minute people find out that her father is this famous and wealthy writer, they can't call her fast enough.

Her music teacher, Sylvia (Jaoui, who also directs), proves to be no exception -- as soon as she learns the real identity of the fat, wanting girl in her class, she takes pains to be extra nice and wrangles an invitation to the family's country house. Sylvia's husband, Pierre (Laurent Grevill), is a talented but unsuccessful writer, and this is just the sort of break the couple had been looking for.

Meanwhile, Lolita befriends Sebastian (Keine Bouhiza), an impoverished young journalist who seems like the sanest, most decent person in the movie; at least he doesn't grovel at the altar of Etienne, and cares enough about Lolita to tell her she should stop moaning about her father and live her own life.

It's clear that Bacri and Jaoui are fascinated by human beings, especially the modern bourgeoisie whose problems and concerns mainly revolve around relationships. "Comme une image" (titled "Minna Dareka no Itoshii Hito" in Japan) is all about intimate conversations, face-offs and heated confrontations. No one seems to have the time (or inclination) for anything else, and the camera is always zooming in on the slightest change in a facial expression, slyly capturing sidelong smiles or the lightest of exasperated sighs.

One particularly impressive moment: Sylvia spies a longtime friend walking across the street. She and the friend had fought only a few days before and the rift appears unmendable. Sylvia's profile is a tableau of regret and pain as she watches the friend, oblivious to her gaze, walk away and out of view. She makes no attempt to call out, but it's a good example of the no-nonsense honesty that defines this film, whose underlying message is: Emotions and alliances shift and change, and the dynamics are often beyond our control.

"Comme une image" rarely gets judgmental, and when it does there are no consequences (Etienne is never punished for being a royal pain). But there are spots where Bacri-Jaoui (one suspects mainly Jaoui) allow a little anger to surface. For while the film is about intricate human relations, it's also about being a woman in the modern world, and it's no coincidence that the main character is a girl obsessed with her weight and looks.

Lolita's father and his buddies are always ogling women (when rebuked, Etienne lashes out: "I have eyes! What am I supposed to do, not use them?"), and their standards of feminine beauty are constant reminders to Lolita that in order to be loved, one must be young and thin.

Even the strong, career-minded Sylvia finds herself caught in the trap and, almost against her will, takes pains to look younger/prettier for Pierre (who picks up Etienne's habit of checking out everything in a skirt that walks within a 2-km radius).

In a perfect world, Lolita would be lovely in her father's eyes and he'd love her for the right reasons. In this movie, as in real life, girls like her yell insults at the mirror: "You're fat, fat, fat!"

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