Sally Potter’s New Short Is A Passionate Trump-Era Time Capsule

Jan 8, 2023

Trailblazing director Sally Potter’s latest short film “Look At Me,” a verbal battle of wills between a combative rock drummer (Javier Bardem) and the harried director of a fundraising gala (Chris Rock), is a passionate Trump-era time capsule featuring two mesmerizing performances from its leads. 
The short was originally conceived as part of Potter’s profoundly personal 2020 film “The Roads Not Taken,” which starred Bardem as a Mexican-American man named Leo whose dementia sees him traveling inside his mind through past choices and Elle Fanning as his grown daughter tasked with his care. Early on in the filmmaking process, Potter realized that this sequence would not fit into what would become that film’s nonlinear, triptych structure. 
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Taken on its own, outside the story created for Leo in the original film, “Look At Me” throws viewers directly into a tense scene already in motion. Harnessing all this strength, Bardem’s irascible drummer is burly and brusque. He’s an artist first and foremost, who does not want to be merely the beat for a dancer (Savion Glover). He’s also an addict who has burned many bridges on his rocky road to recovery. 
In his role as the gala director, Rock reminds us that he’s capable of a layered, nuanced performance given the right material. His direct, matter-of-fact way of speaking matches Leo’s combativeness, revealing a more complex relationship between the two men than just employer-employee. Slowly we learn the truth behind how these two men know each other and the depths of their connection. The friction and later harmony between Bardem and Rock are deeply felt and poetically shot. 
Cinematographer Robbie Ryan uses expressive lighting – rich hues of primary blue and red – as well as an enveloping darkness to set the mood for the short. It is angry, and it is passionate, with an undercurrent of both a deep sadness and a resilience of spirit. Potter, who also trained as a dancer, often has Ryan’s camera follow her actors as if they are partners in a dance with the machine, imbuing the film with an undeniable verve. This playful movement contrasts nicely with the brutalist cement room in which the gala is to take place, as well as the isolating emptiness of the cityscape that envelopes Leo. 
The film’s satirical setting – a fundraising gala where Bardem (playing Mexican) and Glover are asked to perform in literal cages – serves to lampoon well-meaning liberals who use the same grammar as those they oppose (in this case the atrocious actions against undocumented immigrants by the Trump administration). That we never see the actual rich elites they are set to perform for is probably best, as the focus is not on them but on those who must commodify themselves and their trauma in order to not only survive but live richly in this harsh world.
While the central metaphor is a bit on the nose, and the final scene in the film is almost as patronizing as the well-meaning liberals she’s satirizing, the committed and impassioned performances from both Bardem and Rock keep “Look At Me” from sinking into treacly territory. 
Potter has long flown under the radar as one of the great filmmakers of the last forty years. From her startling debut “The Gold Diggers” to her best-known film “Orlando” and everything in between, Potter has experimented with form and tone, and structure, never repeating herself and always grounding her films in the politics of being alive.
Her latest short, “Look At Me,” serves as a reminder of her talent as a visual storyteller and her commitment to using film to address power structures. A reminder that you can’t— and shouldn’t ever— look away from them. [B]

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