Read My Lips is an unconventional and engrossing French thriller about a man and a woman who elbow in on a big-money crime. It's not about the blind leading the blind, but the deaf leading the debased, and vice versa.
Carla (Emmanuelle Devos) can't hear without two hearing aids. A secretary in a property management company, she faces the condescension of other employees as she attempts to work her way up in the business. Paul (Vincent Cassel) is a blunt, violent parolee being forced to pay off an enormous debt to a crooked nightclub owner.
Each is an odd combination of straightforwardness and inchoate passion and ambition. By the end, they manage to fill in each other's blanks without uttering the most dreaded three words in modern romance: "You complete me." In this hardboiled romance, actions speak louder than words.
We meet Carla first, and Devos is extraordinary in the role - both subtle and fierce in her resistance to pathos and resourceful in her embodiment of desire in the face of disappointment. No one except the audience recognizes her beauty, perhaps because she holds herself in reserve, as if conditioned for rejection; she moves (or sits) with a slight tilt of the head, as if she's making sense of an alternate planet. In a way, she is.
Deaf Earth barely connects to Hearing Earth in this movie. Even her best friend outside the office treats her as a crying towel and baby sitter rather than an equal. Co-workers who don't realize how well she can read lips freely insult her; everyone in the office uses her desk to park their beverage cups.
Director Jacques Audiard has denied being a psychological director - perhaps because he's so keenly and vividly psychological, he always makes states of mind dramatically concrete. He uses silence to convey Carla's plight in a way that was missing from Children of a Lesser God; the film boasts other eloquent flourishes, like a shot of Carla's bopping down the street when she begins to respond rhythmically to music.
But when she's ordered to hire an assistant and she gives the job to Paul - an armed robber just out on probation - the movie becomes an intense psychological puzzler.
Paul has no skills and looks like a seedy scarecrow. He thanks Carla for providing a position and an apartment by offering sex in a manner tantamount to rape. Yet in his own fashion, he does read her better than anyone else, and repeatedly protects her.
Even after he persuades her to use her lip-reading skills so he can figure out a plan hatched by that slimy nightclub owner, the movie's suspense is rooted in ultra-human questions. The most basic one is, who exactly is exploiting whom?
A couple of the set pieces recall Hitchcock's Rear Window. Audiard doesn't have the combination of low cunning and lucidity that gives Hitchcock films their shimmer, and his lack of stylization makes the bloodletting seem almost unbearably brutal. But he does have the understanding of mixed motives - and the willingness to keep them enigmatic - that gives thrillers their staying power.
At a time when movies are overrun with tricks, Read My Lips has a kicky candor.
Read My Lips
Starring Emmanuelle Devos and Vincent Cassel
Directed by Jacques Audiard
Time 115 minutes
Released by Magnolia Pictures
In French with English subtitles
SUN SCORE * * * 1/2