We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

_Comme Une Image_: A Good film (Così fan tutti_? or _Look at Me_ :() · 24 May 05

My dear Fanny,

Since we got to talking about how the demand that a woman be thin and sexy-alluring for some perceived idea of what upper class and macho men want on WWTTA, I’ve been wanting to recommend a superb film, the quietly effective, Comme Une Image by Agnès Jaoui. The English translation is misleading, perhaps unconsciously (perhaps not) as the real meaning of the title is feminist. The Italian distributors got it better when they produced a witty mock on Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte. In Italian Comme Une Image is Cosi Fan Tutti.

The focus is on an overweight older teenage girl (she may be as old as 20, as young as 17) and her music teacher. The girl is called Lolita (an allusion is intended, here is the "real" Lolita), and is played by Marilou Berry; the music teacher’s first name is Sylvia (Sylvia, Sylvia what is she calls Shakespeare in his alluring lyric from Two Gentlemen of Verona) and the film-maker herself takes the role. The reviews have presented
the film as about a struggle between an egoist father and a daughter who breaks away from him, tries to rebel and almost succeeds; in fact, at the center are two women, the overweight girl who is learning to sing and somewhat disdained by her father because she’s overweight and not pretty and her singing or music teacher whose self-centered novelist husband’s book comes to the attention of the publisher-father. Isabel suggested the father named the daughter, Lolita because he had read Nabokov. "He’s this literary type," said Izzy.

As the film opens, we are at a theatre and we hear this irritated man coming out of a fancy car. He is indignant his book has been misrepresented by this film he despises; he is important enough to jump a queue. His daughter, stumbling behind, cellphones a boyfriend who we discover she moons after but is only longing to connect with her father; she is forbidden entrance and then stumbles on a young man who has fainted. She puts her jacket on him and then forgets to take it when she gets into the theatre. On line are four people, our teacher, her husband, his woman agent, and a writer-friend. Both of these people the husband drops (with the wife-teacher helping him) when the publisher picks him up and offers him big sums. Only gradually do we see that we are looking at these men from the women’s decent point of view as a pair of shits. A high moment is the wife-teacher watching her husband make as ass out of himself on a TV show set up by the publisher. Or maybe a low one. There are many such low moments: the father arguing with his young (thin) wife, about the age of his daughter, that she should leave her very young daughter alone over what she eats; the father leaving the performance by his daughter at the end and only coming back to applaud, much more taken with another young woman who is conventionally attractive as a possibility for monetary success. What does one’s singing voice matter? At one point the teacher is asked why she does not sing herself, and she replies much more is needed for success than a beautiful trained voice.

At the end of the film the teacher is packing her suitcase to
return to her apartment without the novelist-husband. She is leaving him to follow the publisher around, to become one of his entourage. They may be breaking up. The daughter walks away too, with the young man she met at the opening of the film. They are sharing a bicycle. The young man is a melancholy desperate type (at one point the father snaps at him, that he has some cyanide in a closet if he wants it) and has shown he is not to be bought by the father, sees "through" the father, and doesn’t like skinny girls.

Quietly moving. The qualified triumphal ending is both women
walking away. It’s qualified. They are not in power. The women have no money for real: the music teacher clearly scraps along; the girl is dependent on her father. The music teacher has a beautiful voice but it takes far more than that to have a career. The teacher has helped her husband to dump the woman agent who used to work for the husband novelist. An estranged moment is powerful there between these two women. The husband-writer is also dumping his writer-friend we saw at the film’s opening. The friend is reduced to playing phone tag. There’s no big money, no fame, to be gained by the novelist when he collaborates with this friend.

The English title is unfortunate—or unconsciously, deliberately misleading. A review on IMDB "interprets" the film as about how these women want the men to look at them. The father will not look at his daughter and therefore will not respect the daughter’s singing (all she wants is to be "looked at"), not "watch" (or listen) to her. The reviewer did get that the novelist & father are shits, not the film’s engendering point of interest. The Italian title got the right angle or perspective: if Mozart showed us what women do as men feel women’s power, Jaiou shows us what men do as women are made to feel men’s power.

The French title is the true or accurate one: "comme un image." Jaoui has made a film which swirls about the importance for women of their bodies, their images in the minds of men and thus in their own.

The father’s young second wife is as thin as Jaiou; she briefly leaves him for yelling at her, mocking her, but she has clearly no where else to have such a physically comfortable respected life. We see her fight with him and her very young daughter because (she says) the child shouldn’t eat meat in the middle of the day, should not have that extra ice cream. It will give her ‘an eating disorder,’ i.e., make her fat.

The agent is a raggedly thin woman, haggard in her skin, intense, in very high-heeled hard red shoes, dressed to the nines. The scene where the music teacher drops the woman agent for her husband occurs in a restaurant. They are sitting over a table and the teacher has eaten her lunch and must get back to teaching. The agent is late. Now the woman agent won’t eat. Her nerves are too frayed (she says). Later Sylvia sees the agent walking across the street and does not cross to try to make up. It’s useless. There is no more job for the agent. How do people connect? What is friendship in this world?

We see the women all eating, preparing food, involved with it. Several times we see Jaoui making food for her husband. We see her eating in a number of scenes. Bare amounts of food on a plate, but eating. Perhaps nature has been kind and made her naturally thin? And small-breasted? Or she eats very small portions. Small bowls. Probably a combination of all this. The teenager Lolita is mortified to wear blouses that are popular or "in" because they show her breasts so prominently.

Worth seeing, worth seeing. Here’s a decent plot-summary

More and more woman’s novels, the woman’s point of view is being marginalized: either shamed or ridiculed or sneered out of the public consciousness as unworthy, prudish, sentimental, naive. Such a film heartens and shows that half the world’s population sees another story than Mozart’s.

I’ve bought an important book about women’s images: Susan Bordo’s Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body. It’s about the feat of fat that pervades our contemporary culture (for men too—the man with the belly is working class, drinks beer), to our disgust for the clumsy, gross, & lumbering matter of the body. Angela Carter asks, "what is wrong with being gross?" At heart an elite driven desire to transend the animal is at the heart of all this, but it’s projected through the coarse common denominator of class and sex and thinness becomes the visibilia of desirability and social privilege.

Oddly (?) Bordo mentions in her preface how she lost 25 pounds in a weight-watcher’s program, and then doesn’t come back to this. This is indicative, Fanny. Repeatedly these women’s books leave out the real self, where the money the woman lives on came from, who are her connections that enabled her to do X, how she got them (what she needed to do to get access to public media and events). None of them dare to reveal the particularities of their own existences lest they endanger their own relationships, their security, their income, or the real people they are close to, lest they anger someone who can and will hurt them. "Respectability" is still with us as a censorer albeit in an unacknowledged for. So we are left with the same real cultural anxieties, bodily shames, and hidden abuses of power in the home and at work still shrouded in anonymity and untouched by all the abstractions and "fictional"

Well here is where blogs come in. Here we do see people talk a little for real.

And nice not to be feel so alone as once I did. I rejoice to say a member who left has now come back to WWTTA, Kathy C. Of Comme Une Image, Kathy wrote:

"Ellen, I saw and admired this film. And I agree with you that the relationship between the two women is the most important."


Posted by: Ellen

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