READ MY LIPS (Sur mes lèvres)

(director/writer: Jacques Audiard; screenwriter: Tonino Benacquista.; cinematographer: Matthieu Vadepied; editor: Juliette Welfing; music: Alexandre Desplat; cast: Vincent Cassel (Paul Angeli), Olivier Gourmet (Marchand), Olivier Perrier (Masson), Emmanuelle Devos (Carla Bhem), Bernard Alane (Morel), Cecile Samie (Josie), David Saracino (Richard Carambo), Christophe Vandevelde (Louis Carambo), Olivia Bonamy (Annie), Serge Boutleroff (Mammouth), Pierre Diot (Keller); Runtime: 115; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Jean-Louis Livi/Phillippe Carcassonne; Magnolia Pictures; 2001-France)

“It’s stylishly directed with verve…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A French postmodern film noir that is co-written and directed by Jacques Audiard (“A Self-Made Hero (95)“/ “See How They Fall (94)“). It’s stylishly directed with verve, sharply written in a fluid manner, and the demanding roles by the film’s two stars are accomplished with seemingly an effortless ease. “Read My Lips” won Césars for best actress (Emmanuelle Devos), best screenplay (Jacques Audiard & Tonino Benacquista), and best sound (Marc-Antoine Beldent). The unique crime heist plotline serves as a red herring for a troubling romance story between two lost souls from different worlds, who struggle to crawl out of their tightly drawn skin when they find someone before them whom they never imagined existed. Each is being asked to stretch their sense of being and learn how to live in each other’s world — both the criminal world of bad manners and the office one of good manners; the discomfort they have in reaching out to each other and the daily pains that fill their insides, are what makes this unpredictable and harsh film hop with the brilliance of a Hitchcockian thriller — but, in a fitting way the old master didn’t have a stomach for.

Carla Bhem (Emmanuelle Devos) is a straight-laced, 35-year-old, plain looking, hearing-impaired (she wears two hearing aids) secretary for a Paris property development company, a job where she is treated unfairly by some of the ambitious men who work there and as a further put down her desk is located in the cumbersome spot near the copy machines where the coffee breaks are taken–this results in coffee cups left on her desk and some spilling over on her paperwork. When the boss, Morel, (Bernard Alane), who treats her with passable consideration thinks she’s being overworked and lets her hire an assistant — she is so insecure that she feels threatened by that kindly gesture thinking that he might not be satisfied with her work. Her job includes a wide assortment of tasks from handling files and answering the phone to drafting estimates and dealing with suppliers. She is the first to arrive in the morning, and the last one out at night.

Carla’s private life is a continuation of how she’s taken advantage of at work, as her chic single-mom girlfriend (Bonamy) uses her to babysit while she goes to the disco with her girlfriends and screws all night her latest boyfriend. She treats Carla as an inconsequential person, and talks piggishly about what a great f*ck she had while being unaware of her so-called friend’s lonely feelings and sexual desires.

The filmmaker sets the dark tone of Carla’s anxiety-ridden inner world, as he forces the viewer to see the world as she sees it by having her remove her hearing aids when she feels upset with life around her and have everything then become almost still. The film jumps back and forth throughout in a jarring fashion from the extremes of stillness and loudness. In short order the director deftly shows us that the mousy Carla, whose life is caught in a web of dreariness, has a pent up fury quietly burning inside that draws her to the disco music and the exciting things that have so far passed her by. What she wants is a young man in her life and to be like her girlfriends who are not shamed by a handicap, and she does not want to be thought of as merely some saintly handicapped figure to be pitied. How she grows more beautiful and more full of life the more adventuresome she becomes, makes for one of the more interesting performances I have seen in quite some time.

When Carla hires her “secretarial assistant” (there’s got to be some comedy in having a job title like that–it must be a French thing), she’s more interested in the attractiveness of the man than in his work skills. The employment-agency sends over someone who is no threat to her job, Paul Angeli (Vincent Cassel), a scruffy looking 25-year-old ex-con with a telling tattoo of a dagger on his hand and without any skills to do office work. He shares his surprise that he’s hired with his amiable but rather odd parole officer Masson (Olivier Perrier).

In Paul, Carla has found someone who is lower on the totem pole than she is, and while taking pity on him she bosses the unsure worker around — in a job he only took because it’s better than some menial one he most likely would have been given if he hadn’t lied. She also gives the homeless Paul the keys to a vacant apartment undergoing long-term renovation, an advance on his salary, alibis for him when he misses a meeting with his parole officer and glows when the other workers see the very masculine stud sitting with her in the worker’s cafeteria. Since she has the great ability to read lips, she has always known the nasty things her unsuspecting fellow workers were saying about her. Paul thinks he has to pay her back for her kindness by having sex with her — which is the only thing he has that he can offer her as payment. But, she’s frightened off when he suddenly gropes her. She also shows that she’s no easy lay, he’ll have to work for his booty. The office romance picks up steam again the next day, when she’s tired of another worker (Diot) taking advantage of her and she gets the reluctant ex-con to do his thing and steal an important work file from the arrogant snot which helps her take away a contract he previously stole from her.

The story suddenly kicks into its suspenseful thriller mode, as Paul is beaten up by a mafia-like thug and forced to work off his debt by becoming an indentured servant to swinish minor league mobster nightclub owner Marchand (Olivier Gourmet-recently won Best Actor at Cannes for “The Son”). One of his tasks is to be a bartender at the club. When Paul spots the dangerous gangster Carambo brothers (Saracino & Vandevelde) meeting with his boss, he knows something is going down and makes use of Carla’s ability at lip-reading by placing her on the nightclub’s roof with binoculars all night and looking into the brothers’ apartment window to decifer what’s going on. Paul figures by robbing the stash from these gangsters, it will give him the ticket out of his doldrums. Carla helps him with her brains as he alone is not smart enough to pull it off, but she’s not interested in the money — she figures just being with Paul is her ticket to happiness.

There’s a splendidly well-thought out heist that takes place amidst much violence and cunning interplay, but that’s not what the film is about. It’s about these two misfits and their fight against those who either beat them up or treat them with disrespect, and how they come out of their shells after all this turbulence and touch each other with affection. It was the kind of thriller/love story Hollywood will remake with big name box office stars but not be able to duplicate the spirit of this gritty work (it hardly ever does).

This film ably caught the fears and desires of the main characters, the unpleasantness in the workplace, the brutishness of the underworld scene, and the youthful allure of the swinging disco scene and its techno music. In its ambitions to say even more than it needed to, it has some wasted scenes that seem out of place and heavy-handed. One is with the parole officer, who it turns out is more troubled than Paul. It was unnecessary to ruin the flow of the film by spending so much time with this messed up agent of society and his twisted sense of love, especially, when the main characters’ love story was far more compelling. The other was a rape scene of the heroine that hammers home the point that women are victims in today’s sexist society and when they try to have a good time they will pay for it, a moralistic point that didn’t feel right in this movie. The film didn’t have to go down those bumpy sub plotted roads, because in its excellently scripted and fast-paced editing and edgy camerawork and in its excellently fleshed out characterizations of the two sympathetic misfit antiheroes, it did all it could to present a highly-charged psychological thriller that makes you feel for the now free-at-last revenge seekers who through their anti-social noirish actions have at last overcome their past abuses and inability to find love.

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