No, it’s not just you, or even me. This year’s crop of American films has been awful, and moviegoers are reacting by staying home. The current box-office slump is the cause of growing alarm in Hollywood, though not enough as yet to persuade anyone there to try making better movies. Instead, it’s serving to accelerate an industry-wide descent to the lowest common denominator of mass taste—the very same affliction from which network TV, commercial pop music, and weekly newsmagazines are all suffering.
Are Americans growing more stupid? I doubt it. (Less educated, yes, but that’s not the same thing.) Some other factor is at work, and my hunch is that it has something to do with the rise of the new Web-based media. Back in the good-old days of the common culture, we all watched pretty much the same movies and TV shows, just as we read the same best-sellers and subscribed to the same magazines. But the new media, with their unrivaled capacity for reaching out to niche audiences, have made it easier for us to pursue our own specialized tastes—and in so doing have eaten away at the economic foundations of the old mass media. With the new media siphoning off those bright and adventurous young “early adopters” who prefer to make their own cultural choices, the old media must pander ever more aggressively to the lowbrow market in order to stay in business. That’s what blockbuster movies are all about: They seek to please the largest possible number of people by any means necessary.
Could it be that the combined effects of the new media and the disintegration of America’s common culture have brought us to a point where it is no longer cost-effective for Hollywood to make movies intended to appeal to a mass audience? We’re not quite there yet, but we’re getting there, and as the tipping point draws nearer, you can expect big-budget movies to become dumber and more vulgar in response. For my part, I’ve been finding it all but impossible of late to sit through any of the offerings on display at the neighborhood gigaplex, especially now that so many fine films of the past, both distant and recent, are available on DVD in pristinely restored digital transfers. Sure, I prefer to see movies on a big screen, seated among a large audience of happy filmgoers—but if I’ve got to choose between seeing Monster-in-Law in a theater and watching Rio Bravo or Kind Hearts and Coronets on my smallish TV, I’m going to break out the microwave popcorn and head for the couch.
Fortunately, I live just 20 blocks north of a small but comfortable multiplex that specializes in foreign and independent films, and while you couldn’t pay me enough money to see Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, there’s almost always something playing there that’s worth a bus ride on a rainy night. A case in point is Agnes Jaoui’s Look at Me (“Comme une image”), a deceptively modest little French movie that is everything Monster-in-Law isn’t, and much, much more to boot.
Lolita (Marilou Berry), the protagonist of Look at Me, is the chubby, angrily self-conscious daughter of Etienne (Jean-Pierre Bacri), a celebrated author and editor whose favor is sought, sometimes aggressively and sometimes subtly, by everyone he meets. As well as making him a monster of vanity, Etienne’s celebrity has shriveled his daughter’s soul to the point where she no longer believes anyone could possibly be interested in her save as a way of cozying up to her father. (“I’m a zero!” she cries.) A not-ungifted voice student, she is self-pitying to a degree that is off-putting to Sylvia, her teacher and mentor (played with extraordinary skill by Jaoui herself), who is married to a talented but obscure novelist (Laurent Grevill). But just as Sylvia is preparing to drop Lolita, she discovers that her pupil has a famous father in the publishing business and chooses instead to cultivate her, thus setting in motion the law of unintended consequences. By film’s end, Sylvia has gotten what she thought she wanted—along with something else she didn’t want.
I don’t want to say much more about what happens in Look at Me because so much of it is so blessedly unexpected, though never in the jack-in-the-box manner of a suspense movie. Instead of filling their script with stick figures cribbed from the pages of a screenwriting manual, Jaoui and Bacri, who wrote Look at Me, show us real people, complicated and inconsistent: Sylvia is opportunistic but not venal, Etienne callous but not heartless, and while Lolita has talent, she is no ugly duckling self-evidently fated to metamorphose into a gorgeous swan. As we take leave of her, she is starting at last to climb out of the terrible abyss of self-consciousness—yet we are far from certain that her ultimate ending will be a happy one. Sylvia’s fate is even more interesting, for while she takes what appears to be a decisive step toward redemption, it is uncomfortably clear that she has already paid a high price for the good intentions that first led her to cultivate Lolita.
I could go on at length about the exceptional craft that went into the making of Look at Me, but to do so would be untrue to the film’s self-effacing spirit. The direction is transparent to the point of invisibility, the actors so believable that they scarcely seem to be acting at all. Even the minor characters are fully rounded, and except for the very last scene, which seemed to me a bit too neat for comfort, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.
I’m neither a foreign-film snob nor a Francophile, and I can think of quite a few American movies released in recent years that are similar in tone and approach to Look at Me (Sideways, Lost in Translation, The Station Agent, and You Can Count on Me come immediately to mind). Still, it’s undeniably true that European films in general are more likely than American ones to aspire to the complexity and ambiguity of a first-rate novel. No one in Look at Me, for instance, is wholly good or bad—but neither is Agnes Jaoui implying that there’s no such thing as good or bad. On the contrary, she offers a nuanced portrayal of the corrosive effects of power on the human heart, one that is at once troubling and hopeful. What Lord Acton said about power can never be quoted often (or accurately) enough: Not only does it tend to corrupt, but mere proximity to its insidiously seductive influence can soften the integrity of the strongest of men. As Look at Me reminds us, we are all vulnerable, we must all choose—yet even when we choose wrongly and suffer for it, the entreaties of a broken and a contrite heart will not be despised.