Read My Lips

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

READ MY LIPS

7/10

Sur mes Levres : France 2001 : Jacques Audiard : 115-8 mins

The 2001 Cesar for Best Actress pitted Amelie‘s Audrey Tautou against Under the Sand‘s Charlotte Rampling and Isabelle Huppert from The Piano Teacher – each of them, at various stages, mentioned as serious Oscar contenders. So it was regarded outside France as a major shock when the Cesar went to one of the two lower-profile nominees, Read My Lips‘ Emanuelle Devos – but this was mainly because the film hadn’t yet been shown much around the world. Those fortunate enough to have caught it at festivals like Toronto and Berlin knew Devos had every chance of scooping the prize. Because this is a cracking movie, built around the kind of showcase role all actresses dream of.

The tireless Vincent Cassel gets top billing, however – this is the second consecutive time he’s starred in an outstanding French genre picture, though his Lips role could hardly be further removed from his scheming aristo in Brotherhood of the Wolf . He’s Paul Angeli, a tough but sensitive ex-con whose parole officer (Olivier Perrier) wangles him a clerical job at a property-development company. He’s trained by a dowdy secretary named Carla Behm (Devos), who wears two hearing-aids to compensate for deafness. When Carla’s impairment and plain looks are mocked by her boorish colleagues, Paul uses his criminal smarts to help her gain revenge. She returns the favour, helping him solve his difficulties with vicious night-club owner Marchand (Olivier Gourmet) – her lip-reading skills proving unexpectedly handy when the going turns violently rough.

A thoroughly absorbing, skilfully-made thriller, Read My Lips never feels forced or gimmicky despite its reliance on Carla’s unusual abilities – and her deafness is repeatedly presented as being at least as much of an advantage as a problem. While others are annoyed by screaming babies or pounding nightclub music, she’s able to zone them out by removing her hearing aids. Likewise, when she finds Paul temporary accommodation in a semi-finished block of flats, she warns him that he may have difficulty sleeping due to the constant noise of construction – a problem which she, of course, wouldn’t have to suffer. And this is all before her lip-reading skills come into play, giving her a special talent that’s only a step away from telepathy.

Audiard’s script – co-written with Tonino Benacquista – shows an impressive control of thriller elements, blending in just the right amount of humour while taking the genre down unusual alleys. The package is so accomplished, in fact, that the sole mis-step – an apparently non-sequitur subplot involving the parole officer – stands out like a sore thumb. This is a character-based crime drama – it’s intriguing to watch how Carla and Paul gradually break down each other’s defences after they’re thrown together by circumstance – but Read My Lips is also sufficiently savvy on the realities of the modern work-place to rank alongside such recent French efforts as Time Out, Whatever and Human Resources.

The direction, however, keeps us firmly and pleasurably in noir-ish territory: the sound is, of course, crucial – we’re taken into Carla’s head by being forced to pay attention to even the most minute sound cue and effect, culminating in an astonishing, truly Hitchcockian sequence where she reconstructs a series of noises to discover the hiding-place of a vital stash of money. But Read My Lips is equally striking on the visual level, with portions of the frame often teasingly obscured or slightly out of focus. Like so much here, the techniques are undeniably clever, but they miraculously avoid crossing the line into smart-ass showing off. This is just the kind of strong, ingenious but adaptable script that Hollywood producers fall over each other to remake. Let’s hope they don’t screw it up – retaining Audiard, and casting Toni Collette and Vincent Gallo as Carla and Paul would be a good place to start.


7th April, 2002
(seen 17th February, Cinemaxx Berlin – Berlin Film Festival)

For the original review click here

by Neil Young
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