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Interview with Agnes Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri

  The Spinning Image (TSI): Comme Une Image (Look at Me) is your second feature as a director. What was it like for you tackling your second film?

Agnes Jaoui (AJ): My first experience made me pay more attention to certain things. But cinema is that bizarre art where you prepare thousands of things for months, but where suddenly, it's the moment that counts - knowing how to capture things at the right moment, sometimes filming the actor without them knowing. As with The Taste of Others, I'd prepared a shooting script beforehand, but that didn't stop Stephane Fontaine, my director of photography, from suggesting things to me. We took the time to discuss things, and I had enough confidence to welcome that flexibility. As an actress, I've worked on small-budget films where one has the 'luxury' of being more spontaneous which sometimes leads to some wonderful things. I didn't want to deprive myself of that.

TSI: Have you seen a change in the way Agnes Jaoui directs, in contrast to The Taste of Others?

Jean-Pierre Bacri (JPB): I've seen somebody who knows much more what they want, someone more self-sufficient.

TSI: What was the starting point for the script?

AJ: A father/daughter relationship, and also having a father with a girlfriend your age. That's something I've experienced, that I've seen and that we've wanted to deal with for a long time in the theatre. We also wanted to talk about power, even if we'd already begun exploring this theme a little in Kitchen with Apartment. But power from the point of view of those who tolerate it, not from the bully's point of view. Not a day goes by when I'm not astonished to see how people accept how others speak to them, treat them, squash them and mock them, when if they rebelled against it they wouldn't be risking being sent to prison or finding themselves up against a firing squad. I'm not talking about resistance during wartime. I'm stunned by this lack of resistance. In thinking about it, I realised that obviously, if one hasn't succeeded in saying 'no' to one's father, there is little chance that one would be able to say 'no' to one's boss, one's manager or to an equal either. In the end, the two themes work together quite well.

TSI: The singing and the music seem to be quite important in the film…

AJ: I've been performing music since the age of 17. I love it and one of my dreams has been to share that love. I started feeling passionately about music the first time I went to an academy for singers. Music is so beautiful when it's live. I began in the theatre when I was 15 and I quickly saw that there was an extraordinarily violent injustice in terms of one's physique. When I was 16, I already felt old because Sophie Marceau who had just done La Boum was a star at 13. There was a completely crazy, monstrous, illogical connection with time. You could be a star at 17, and then nothing at 22... It was ridiculous. In music, it's kind of the opposite. You can't begin working your voice until you're 16 or 17 and the more you work, the better your voice, until you're 60. But I have just learned that even at the Opera school, they don't take girls who are too fat. But it's not your shape that's important; it's your work.

TSI: That independence of the voice is a kind of 'up yours' to the tyranny of the image...

AJ: Yes, exactly. Well, for I for one found it enormously appeasing. I began singing because I was wasting away in theatre classes, and I felt I wasn't learning anything. At least with music, I was learning something. But I don't think I would have had the rigour you need to become a professional singer. It's sport - you can't drink nor smoke. I've always sung privately and as an amateur but for the last three years, I've been working with the vocal ensemble that is in the film. Last summer, we did some small concerts here and there and I wanted them to be in the film. One of the biggest challenges in the film was trying to recreate the emotion one feels when one listens to live music. There was a lot of discussion with Jean-Pierre Duret, the sound engineer, and Daniel Deshays who did the recordings. I didn't want too clean a sound and definitely didn't want to clean up the imperfections because we are, for the most part, amateurs and it's these imperfections that move me. We decided it had to be live sound as much as possible. Everyone really sang, apart from Marilou Berry. But she did a lot of preparation with Mahe Goufan and Bernadette Val, who has been my teacher for 20 years. I met her at the Amandiers in Nanterre with Patrice Chereau, where she had come to teach us to sing. It was epic!

TSI: There is a great deal of fluidity in Comme Une Image. Do you think your love for singing has influenced your directing?

AJ: I'd like to think so in any case! The difficulty was having to select the pieces of music before the shoot because most of them were in. I made up a CD and I'd read the script with the music on. But it's not the same; I had to use my imagination. I knew from the start where I wanted the music, but in the first edit there was much too much. I love music so much that I lose my objectivity. But little by little, I took it out. But I knew which music would go where. I also knew that I shouldn't put in too much different music because an uninformed ear would have been worn out. You need time to recognise a tune. But at the same time, you shouldn't always be hearing the same thing. It's a question of the right dose, which I found hard to realise. These are tunes that I know by heart, that I love from deep inside. The beautiful thing about classical music is that you never get tired of it. Cosi Fan Tutte for example has been used a great deal - it's an extremely cinematographic tune. I wanted to call the film that. In fact, in Italy, the film will be called Cosi Fan Tutti: "Everyone Does It". It truly is the excuse for bad behaviour.

JPB: At one time, we also wanted to call the film The Right Reasons. One always has a good reason for compromising, justifying oneself by talking about necessity. Someone bullied by their boss will tell you they have a family to feed and they must work and they have to accept it. Lolita gives the excuse that Etienne is her father. Vincent accepts being Etienne's flunkey because Etienne did him a favour 25 years before. Everyone always has a good reason for being a vassal. But at the same time, there are many people who say no way and leave their job, even if they do have a family to feed. It's a question of dignity and character.

AJ: Most people need bosses, kings, gods or fathers, people who tell them what they should and shouldn't do.

JPB: Power is something vacant. It's a place taken by people who are interested in it. Like the place of vassals in the past. A king doesn't exist without the court around him. Otherwise he is a king exposed.

AJ: Bosses are also there for us to hate, and to blame. All that rather than being adult and assuming one's responsibilities - it's true but it's hard.

TSI: In his own way, Sebastien, Lolita's boyfriend, represents this form of resistance...

JPB.: Yes, Sebastien is the most free character, in terms of the power based relationships that link these individuals.

TSI: Why did you choose to set Comme Une Image in the world of publishing?

JPB: It's a simple reason - we were looking for a place where power could be exercised but avoiding the one we know best. So we shifted the cinema milieu into the world of publishing, but Etienne could have been a great architect or some high-powered boss, it doesn't really make any difference. We know people's relationships function the same everywhere. There is always a little bit of power to take somewhere, and people always behave the same way.

TSI: Lolita is twenty. Is this the first time you have dealt with such a young character?

AJ: We were getting fed up with people always asking us why there are never any young people in our films. And as we wanted to deal with the father/daughter relationship, it worked out quite well. It also allowed us to tackle more head-on the power of the image and different ways of behaving than in our previous films. Lolita is at an age where one is looking for one's self, and all the more so because she's not a size 10. It's violent at any age but more so at 20. The tyranny of beauty is totally permitted today. We are not allowed to be racist - and quite right too - but being racist about body shape doesn't seem to bother anyone. You just have to look at all those images devoted to the cult of youth and beauty - well, a certain kind of beauty that is more and more limited. There is only one model left and inevitably that limits the possibilities of identification and creates more unhappiness. Everything we compare ourselves to makes unhappiness but there, it's worse than anything else. There are anorexic girls, girls who are dying - this is serious. Even the more intelligent ones become crazy and stupid when they talk about weight and physique. I know hardly anyone who is normal on this subject.

TSI: On the masculine side, there is the model incarnated by Robert Mitchum, the virile cowboy from the Westerns that Sebastien watches on television while waiting for Lolita...

AJ: Another possible title for the film was Girls' Tears And Boys' Anger. Lolita carries the weight of beauty on her shoulders - she ought to correspond to a well-gauged physical model. Boys are more relaxed about that side of things but they always owe it to themselves to be virile.

JPB: It's no less traumatic! The burden is just as heavy to bear.

TSI: The scene at the end where Lolita sings is a kind of crisis point. Suddenly everybody manages to be together.

AJ: Yes, apart from the father! It's stronger than anything - he can't dedicate himself to anyone other than himself. After those panoramic shots of the harmonious faces of the audience, absorbed in the show, we end up on Etienne's absent and annoyed face. I have to say that that moment always makes me want to cry. Etienne can't even give that tiny bit of attention to his daughter. When we were writing, we had some problems with this character. We had several different models in our heads and there were some who were so odious... but the other danger was making him too nice, all the more so considering we knew it was Jean-Pierre who was going to play the part. We were very afraid that the audience might think he was a great guy, while really he's someone appalling. So we had to find the right balance.

TSI: In that final singing scene, there is the belief that when people are absorbed by their art, when they are in their place, they are inevitably beautiful.

AJ: Yes, when they are at their job. That's what I wanted to film. In fact, another possible title was In Their Place. All the characters in the film are looking for their place, just a small one, particularly Lolita.

TSI: The television show to which Pierre is invited is the absolute negation of that right place. The people aren't invited on to it for what they do.

AJ: Many people starting off in that job say they will never go on that sort of show, until they are invited on and they are flattered. If you talk about success today, you must confront that kind of scene.

TSI: One could claim that Etienne would have his daughter's grace when she sings, if you filmed him busy writing and not being sadistic towards others

AJ: I'm afraid that this character is difficult to save! Well perhaps, when he cries and says that nobody has ever loved him. One imagines he's certainly lacked love and recognition himself. There is a clue...

JPB: ... and the human element. My character is egocentric. He is only concerned with himself and he's quite right to do so because nobody contradicts him! It's not even that he doesn't have time to listen to others, it's that it's nothing to do with him. It's exotic to him. If one doesn't have a political conscience and if one has the material or physical means, it's easy to be egocentric.

TSI: Does knowing you are going to perform change the way you direct?

AJ: No, it's being a screenwriter that counts more for me. I have trouble not giving parts that are the author's words to myself. I think that's because I'm not confident enough. I would be afraid that someone else wouldn't be able to play what I want to say in the film in the way I want it said.

JPB: Agnes always plays the characters that we like as the writer. Whereas I don't. It's about time that changed!

AJ: No, why? You play them so well.

TSI: Jean-Pierre Bacri, how do you assume the role of a character that is "difficult to save"?

JPB: You try to save him all the same, but it was difficult sometimes because Agnes asked me to do things I didn't like. For example, she said to me: "the whole time this woman is speaking, you mustn't look at her." I often had to force myself to be so disrespectful. She had to call me to order because I don't know how to do selfishness to that extent.

AJ: I had to tell him: "Don't listen. Turn away. You're fooling around with a friend and what this girl is telling you is no business of yours whatsoever. Ultimately, it's irritating you. Cut her off, you're too nice."

JPB: Yes, sometimes I was a bit too nice!

AJ: I'm thinking of the scene where Karine is crying and I thought that you could have been nastier...

JPB: Yes but as she'd just left him, he's weaker and he makes a spectacle of this weakness. He wants to be cute.

AJ: That's true, it's a classic bully's move - suddenly show you're an angel, a victim.

JPB: They are angels just the time it takes for reconciliation. That's the way they get us. It's funny to play because I know it so well. It made me laugh. But as an actor, I always say to myself: "Put everything human you have in your character."

TSI: How did you decide on the casting?

AJ: We knew that I would play Sylvia and that Jean-Pierre would play Etienne. And we'd also written for Serge Riaboukine, who I'd met on Christophe Blanc's An Outgoing Woman. After that, of course the first role to fill was Lolita's. We started more than a year in advance, with Brigitte Moidon, my casting director. The amazing thing was that there are no 'fat' girls in drama schools. Well, there's one in a thousand! And in general, they are the "I accept it, this is me, I feel good about myself" kind - like Moliere's Toinette - which didn't correspond to the character.

TSI: Did the fact that Marilou Berry is herself the child of a celebrity help her take on the role?

AJ: You'll have to ask her. I've never spoken to her about that. Marilou just told me how people would step on her toes to say hello to her mother. Some people changed their attitude when they knew she was their daughter. That, she has experienced. But I don't know if it helped her perform.

TSI: And Virginie Desarnauts, who plays Karine, Etienne's girlfriend?

AJ: Funnily enough, she was the hardest character to cast. There was a plethora of girls with her figure, but the kindness was missing. For the tests, I had them do the scene where Karine is crying and when she tries on the clothes when she's with Lolita. At the start, you want to slap Karine because she moans about having put on 12 grams. But once she realises she's there for Lolita and she encourages her to try on the little top, she's someone sincere and kind. And that was the thing that so many actresses couldn't play - they didn't have that kindness. Virginie did.

TSI: And Laurent Grevill, who plays your partner?

AJ: That wasn't a nice easy role. It needed someone with virility and strength, someone you didn't think was the weak guy who would get taken for a ride then change sides. If you saw that from the start, it wouldn't be interesting. Laurent was with me at Nanterre, and I've wanted to work with him for a long time. When we did the tests, we hadn't worked together for 14 years. We found we were suddenly quite taken by the emotion of working together again, like an old couple who meet once more.

TSI: You gave the role of Pierre's editor to Michele Moretti.

AJ: She's an actress I've admired for a very long time. I saw her in Techine's The Wild Reeds and I adored her. We offered her the role very quickly. I think she's funny yet moving.

TSI: And Keine Bouhiza, who plays Sebastien?

AJ: He's done shorts, but this is his first feature. He's a guy I've known for a long time, and he worked in production before taking acting classes. When I wrote Sebastien's role with Jean-Pierre, we were thinking of Buster Keaton in "The Cameraman", a hero despite himself. Keine has that dimension. He instinctively looked at Marilou with a great deal of tenderness. The tests they did together were very sweet.

TSI: Did you ask yourself a lot of questions about how to direct Lolita, how to view her and her complexes?

AJ: Yes and no. I think Lolita is beautiful and normal, truly. I just thought of really simple things. I wanted Marilou to wear black because most young people I know hide behind their clothes. I didn't want too try and make her look more attractive, but I did really want her to be beautiful at the moment when she sings, and I talked about it to the director of photography and the makeup artist. I like changing physiques. Marilou has a Modigliani face, very crafted, very interesting and expressive. And she takes light extremely well.

TSI: Why did you choose to work with the director of photography Stephane Fontaine?

AJ: I knew that there would be many night and interior shots and I'd been looking for a certain theme in cinema, something not too lit and with depth, which leaves things up to the imagination, things that aren't always exposed. I really liked Laurent Dailland's work on The Taste of Others, but I wanted a different atmosphere, a different colour. I met various cinematographers and I think it was Noemie Lwovsky and Francois Gedigier, the editor, who told me about Stephane Fontaine who was assistant to Eric Gauthier, someone who's work I like. From our first meeting, I felt we were speaking the same cinematographic language, that when I spoke to him about the colour of the "Opening night" curtain for example, we were talking about the same red.

TSI: How was the editing?

AJ: The script was too long but we couldn't cut it. It was during the editing that I did it. For the first time, the film is not the exact copy of the script, but in the end, I don't miss any of the scenes that aren't there any more. Even if it's also the story of Pierre, Etienne, Sebastien and Karine, at a certain point, the film became naturally refocused on Sylvia and Lolita.

TSI: It seems that Comme Une Image is a darker film than The Taste of Others. In that film, it was the social and cultural barrier that separated the people. In Comme Une Image, solitude seems intrinsic to human nature.

AJ: From the moment we began talking about power, there was a chance that we wouldn't be very cheerful. People often say to us our films are about solitude and not listening. I think they are simply films about people and human relationships.
Author: Darren Jones.


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