Read My Lips

Continuing our modest run of French thrillers – this time out it is the 2001 release Read My Lips. While not a simple two character film, Read My Lips concentrates our attention on Emmanuelle Devos as a Parisian secretary at a firm that bids for land development/apartment complex construction jobs. Her name is Carla. She’s in her early mid thirties. She’s somewhere between plain and attractive but neither description will work as a stand-alone.

She’s also deaf, or more accurately, near deaf, and she wears a hearing aid in each ear. Carla puts her all into her job – she’s the first one in, and the last one to leave on a regular basis. She’s also relegated to the background at the office. People leave their coffee cups on her desk as if her space was a part of the canteen. Sales people use her cost analysis and job projections as if they had made these reports themselves, then deny her either credit or a share of the commission. She’s a) stuck in a dead-end job – no promotions or raises come her way, and b) she has no social life.

Carla is actually a dream role for an actress because on the surface she has nothing going for her. She’s set up to be a mousey, uninteresting office drone. But below the surface, she’s cunning, intelligent, and is ready and willing to not only use people to her advantage, but she’ll go so far as to even exploit them. This is not a sinister woman to be feared. Instead think of her as a woman who is much more than she appears to be. This film was released in 2001, and Ms Devos won the Cesar Award (the French Oscar) for her performance in this film.

As I said, she’s got virtually no social life. She has no boyfriend or lover either. She takes on baby-sitting jobs for her girl friends, and then listens intently as these women relate their own sexual experiences to her.

After a salesman at the company took her reports then denied her credit, she was at a near breaking point. In fact she does faint in the office. Her boss, the only one in the film who is sympathetic to her asks if she could use some help. She immediately goes defensive and says that she’s not in need of counseling. But I didn’t mean it like that, says the boss. I meant, could you make use of an assistant?

Enter Vincent Cassel as Paul Angeli. He’s 25, has just been released from prison, and has no office skills at all. He’s also homeless, and has what appears to be just one shirt, one pair of trousers, and one necktie. But he’s clueless about fax machines, copy machines, computers etc. He’s the last person on the planet that one would hire for this job.

After interviewing him at a restaurant where they’ve gone for lunch, she’s a bit repulsed, but after a moment’s consideration, and after she thinks about it, Carla hires him.

While she’s attracted to his roughness, and his crudeness, she recognizes that his total lack of office skills and other shortcomings could be exploited to her advantage. Carla sees that having an assistant would give her some power as well as make her an authority figure.

But for all of his lack of skills, Cassel’s Paul is a quick learner. He’s also something of a sexual predator lacking only smoothness and polish. Despite his youth, he knows plenty about women. He too sizes up Carla, and reads, or maybe misreads desire emanating from her. He makes a physical move, a grope actually, but she spurns the advance and runs off. They continue to work together.

When Carla discovers that Paul is homeless and is sleeping at the office, she finds temporary housing for him. In her mind, now he owes her. That salesman who cheated her out of credit needs some payback. Carla asks Paul to steal back the project documents by breaking into the salesman’s car. He doesn’t want to – but Carla reminds him that she got him housing and covered for him when he missed a meeting with his parole officer. That changes his mind, along with the thought that now she will owe him.

There’s your set up. There’s much ahead of this pair of mismatched people. The actuality is that their differences are just surface. Each believes that the other can be used for their benefit. What that means for us is that there will be bigger plans started. These plans will all key off of Carla’s lip-reading capability.

Just so you have an idea, there are some heavy-duty gangsters in play around the twosome.

I heartily recommend this film because I think it is a small masterpiece. Watching the two of them dance around each other –  with their flawed exteriors concealing their inner strengths is delightful to watch. We see it because we are privy to each of them. But other characters around them in the film can’t see it. So each of them is taken at ‘face value’ by those they encounter, which isn’t much at all. But a good deal of this is because of the way Director Jacques Audiard conceived and presented the film to us.

When Carla needs to turn off the world, she’ll pull the hearing aids from her ears or at least the lower the volume. Audiard presents this visually as well as placing us into Carla’s silent world as well. We hear only what she hears which is often nothing at all.This not only adds to the suspense, but it ties us to the character in a way not seen in films hardly ever. Have a peek at what this is like in the clip just below.

We also experience Carla’s sexual desires and fantasies – not straightforwardly but often from the side or from an angle. This kind of camera work also ties you to her. For example she will examine her own nude body in a mirror. But it is in low light, her body is in the shadows, and off to one side with the camera placed at a low angle so that we only see a part of the reflected image in the mirror.

As for Paul, Cassel invests him with a quiet and subdued menace. His emotions are coiled like a snake within him. He could go animalistic at any time. There is fierceness to him. It is attractive to Carla, and for us, we can take it in stride, meaning we will want to keep our distance from him. We aren’t directly threatened by him, but since Audiard has tied us to Carla, we are fearful of what might happen to her.

My advice is that this film will start slowly, and from there it runs slow until the last third, when their teamwork becomes absolutely crucial leading to a dynamic conclusion to their plans. At this point, Audiard will once again slow things down to a crawl which really heightens the tension and impact. He will set in motion something which he then leaves us to imagine what he has chosen to not show us.

Four point two five. is the rating. Check out the trailer below.

Next Review: Today’s Special


4 thoughts on “Read My Lips

  1. Great film (and great review, too). Do you know The Beat That My Heart Skipped? or Caché? Both terrific French thrillers!

    • Hi Didion – No, I don’t know either of the titles you’ve mentioned, but I’ll look into them. I’ve been sent another suggestion – Revanche – so I’ll continue the Gallic flavor for a while longer.

      • Awesome! (I think Revanche is Austrian/German, FYI.) Looking forward to more of these.

        Every time I look at Vincent Cassel I think, only in France could such a face become such a famous actor. But I can’t overlook the fact that he’s pretty damn famous in the US, too….

  2. I also think this is a great review of an underappreciated French beauty. For another great French film experience, I recommend Un Couer en Hiver ( A Heart in Winter), which won a string of European cinema awards.

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