Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Jan Hrebejk’s Up and Down and Agnès Jaoui’s Look at Me are both smart, humane, and populated with large casts of overlapping characters. But whereas the Czech writer-director intertwines his players’ destinies in the currently fashionable narrative mode that could be called, to borrow a phrase, intelligent design, the French writer-director-actress takes a decidedly unmetaphysical approach to both storytelling and motivation. Hrebejk is a cosmic puppeteer, dangling fates on a string. Jaoui, by contrast, merely observes, counting on vanity to animate her creation.

The poster for Up and Down features an abandoned baby, an image that evokes Hrebejk’s last U.S. release, Divided We Fall, an account of a semimiraculous birth in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. The infant is only a small part of this puzzle, however, and the primary affinity between the two movies is Hrebejk’s knack for shifting nimbly between satire and drama. Up and Down observes a country where community and purpose seem to have entirely unraveled, yet it finds hope in the basic humanity of its individual characters.

The film’s poster child is part of a load of migrants from much farther east. He becomes separated from his mother when two Tarantino-chatty Czech thugs quickly unload their human cargo somewhere near the German border. The smugglers drop the kid off at a pawn shop whose proprietor sells him to Mila (Natasa Burger), an infertile young woman who’s got the baby lust bad. (She’s first glimpsed at an amusement park, impulsively trying to make off with an occupied stroller.) Mila’s skinhead boyfriend, Franta (Jirí Míchacek), is a rent-a-cop and semireformed soccer hooligan who’s still on probation. He worries that a purloined baby could be trouble but soon warms to the kid. Franta has no intention, however, of introducing the brown-skinned child to his soccer-zealot pals, given that their passion for the home team has strong undercurrents of nationalism and racism.

The ballad of Mila, Franta, and their new son—now also named Franta—intersects at several points with the tangled tale of a larger, more dispersed (and more prosperous) family. College professor Otto (Jan Triska) discovers he has a brain tumor and decides he must wrap up some old business. He wants to marry longtime lover Hanka (Ingrid Timková), the mother of their teenage daughter, Lenka (Kristy«na Liska-Boková), which necessitates divorcing estranged wife Vera (Emília Vásáryová). Otto and Vera’s adult son, Martin (Petr Forman, scion of director Milos), flies in from Brisbane for the negotiations. Unseen for 20 years, Martin knows a few things that Otto and Hanka never discuss, which he reveals to the half-sister who previously didn’t know he even existed. But his own secret is shared only with the audience, and not until all the major story lines have been resolved.

The two plots intersect first because Hanka is a human-rights advocate who works with refugees, then again when Franta is asked to help after Martin thinks he’s been pickpocketed by some of the small-time criminals who slip in and out of view in this unpicturesque, slightly menacing Prague. Yet even when no one from Family A is in contact with anyone from Family B, there are thematic overlaps. Resentment of immigrants, the persistence of racism, and a general distrust of strangers—even by the “liberal” characters—are among the forces that drive the screenplay, which was co-written by the director and Divided We Fall scripter Petr Jarchovsky«. Although Vaclav Havel makes a benedictory cameo, Up and Down is neither an ode to national pride nor a film likely to be used by the Czech tourist board.

The simplest reading of Hrebejk’s parable would be that the Czech Republic is ensnared in old problems and resentments, though liberation is possible for those who depart for someplace fresh—say, Australia. Cinematographer Jan Malir certainly makes a point of distinguishing the two countries, picturing the Old World as nearly bleached of color and the new as suffused with tropical yellows and greens. Yet the hot colors are too artificial to be seductive, and this Brisbane doesn’t look much like paradise.

If Martin and Franta are the two opposite poles of the film’s well-constructed world, one free and the other trapped, their respective situations can’t be explained simply by clan, class, or politics. Having demonstrated that everyone is a pawn in a larger, unknowable game, Up and Down then suggests that people can still make crucial choices. Even in a godless universe, that seems about right.

There are also a lot of characters in Look at Me, but heavy coincidence isn’t required to bring them together. All that’s necessary is the desperation of Lolita (Marilou Berry), a pudgy young Parisienne with aspirations to become a singer (or maybe an actress), and the fame of her father, self-absorbed novelist and publisher Etienne (Jean-Pierre Bacri). If Lolita sometimes trades on her dad’s celebrity, she can hardly be blamed: She’s surrounded by people who are anxious to help her do so.

This gently feminist film, which won the best-screenplay award at Cannes last year, opens with a sequence that encapsulates Lolita and Etienne’s relationship. After the premiere of a movie based on one of the author’s books, daughter, father, and the latter’s attractive, young second wife, Karine (Virginie Desarnauts), go to a cast party. The doorman bars Lolita—and her father doesn’t even notice. But if the evening delivers fresh humiliation, it also seems to bring Lolita a new pal. When she sees a young man passed out on the ground, she covers him with her jacket. Later, Sébastien (Keine Bouhiza) calls her to return the jacket, and the two become friendly. Sébastien’s real name is Rachid, so he knows something about not fitting in. It turns out, however, that he’s a job-seeking journalism-school grad, which makes Lolita suspicious.

In fact, the only person whose motives Lolita doesn’t question is her voice teacher, Sylvia (Jaoui), who’s rehearsing Lolita and a small troupe for a classical vocal concert in a picturesque old church near Etienne’s country home. Yet Sylvia is extremely, if discreetly, interested in Lolita’s parentage. Her husband, Pierre (Laurent Grévill), is a well-reviewed but commercially unviable novelist whose prospects would likely be boosted by an acquaintance with Etienne. Soon, the two writers are friends. As Pierre begins to forget old comrades and deny longtime preferences in order to please his new patron, Sylvia becomes as resentful as Lolita.

Look at Me was co-written by Jaoui and Bacri, her ex-husband, who played a similarly dislikable central role in her first feature, The Taste of Others. Whereas that film dabbled in improbable hookups—though not so unlikely as those of Up and Down—this one has barely a contrivance. It’s impeccably naturalistic, a comedy of manners that never lets anyone step out of character to interject stagy zingers. Jaoui ironically punctuates the action with songs, snippets of TV programming, and blaring cell-phone fanfares, but the dialogue and its delivery always stop just short of sparkling. This is satire that intends to draw rueful and perhaps even self-recognizing smiles, not approving guffaws.

There are few precedents for a writer-director to put her character near yet not at the center of a social comedy, but then Jaoui clearly prefers to avoid formulas. If her Sylvia is largely sympathetic (and given one of the few speeches that chastise Etienne), she’s no exemplar. Neither is poor Lolita, whose dependence on Daddy’s approval is as creepy as his refusal to give it. Most remarkably, Etienne is quite a bit less than a monster. Although he has moments of stunning insensitivity—notably when he assumes that all questions about his daughter refer to the 4-year-old born to Karine—Etienne has reasons for his behavior. He’s blocked as a writer, battling with his wife, and facing the takeover of his comfy little publishing firm by a slick corporate outfit.

The film was photographed by veteran cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine in widescreen, which may very well go unnoticed. Jaoui is no more flashy as a director than as a writer, preferring longish takes shot with an unobtrusive camera. Scenes that gather most of the central characters, such as a lunch at Etienne’s country place, feel as intimate as those featuring only a few. Not until the final sequence, when landscape, motion, and light are used in ways heretofore unseen, does Look at Me dare to become beautiful. And even then, it’s not quite ravishing—because life’s not like that. CP