Read My Lips (Sur Mes Levres)
- Reviewed by: Avril Carruthers
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Current Rating 9.67/10 | 3 Votes
Starring Vincent Cassel, Emmanuelle Devos, Olivier Gourmet, Olivier Perrier, Olivia Bonamy, Bernard Alane.
In French with English subtitles.
Read My Lips is a darkly textured and interesting mixed-genre film that works in interwoven layers. Seemingly simple enough at the beginning, it quickly develops with enough pace in parts where it matters for an action movie. As a crime teaser there are enough twists and turns and elements of aggression and subterfuge to bring it to the level of a thriller, and as a psychological dance between the characters it has enough elements of passion and fear to make it fascinating. There is also situational humour and graphic violence of a particularly nasty kind, though this last does not occur until well into the movie.
Carla (Emmanuelle Devos) is a secretary in a property development company, the kind of person everyone takes for granted, quietly doing her work and often that of others, covering up for her bosses with their wives and the other bosses and insecure enough about her position to put up with this situation, though with growing resentment. She is almost always frowning, her posture stooped and defensive. She is also almost totally deaf, her hearing aids not always functioning to keep her connected to her environment. Mostly, she is isolated from others and when her hearing aids are not well adjusted we hear how the outside world batters her private world with an assault of indiscriminate sound. In times like this she prefers to switch them off and simply read lips. She is an intensely interior person both hating and needing her isolation, which brings a kind of relief from the demands of the outside world. It appears she has no close confidante. Her talks with her best girlfriend revolve mostly around the girlfriend’s feelings and affairs and she is too easily prevailed upon for baby-sitting at short notice.
When a stress-related fainting spell at work alerts her boss to her need for an assistant, Paul (Vincent Cassel) arrives, fresh from jail, and with no social or work-place skills. His face is guarded, his eyes weighing with uncertainty what he thinks is expected of him. Habitually he breaks the filters off his cigarettes and in a restaurant, sniffs his food before he eats. His criminal ‘me against them’ attitude, with all its wary suspicion and its need for alliances, fits right in with Carla’s alienation, quickly becoming ‘us against them’. They are set to become catalysts for each other’s growth.
The process by which the two evolve from uneasy hostility to collusion, through blackmail and betrayal to an ultimate partnership on more than one level is the meat of this film. Each uses the other’s skills – specifically Carla’s ability to read lips in the climactic moment of the film – to get what they want. Meanwhile, Carla is finding an avenue for her suppressed resentment and emerges far more assertive and resourceful. Paul gets an opportunity to refine some of his rough edges and learn a way of relating with more openness and trust.
Through all the twisting turns of the plot so much depends on how well these two can read each other’s characters and how much they can trust each other and their own abilities (developed as survival skills) allowing them both to develop new skills. It’s a lovely irony that the very element that makes Carla’s hearing aids unbearable at times is the one thing that allows her to find a hidden stash of money when Paul’s search has turned up nothing.
We are most intimately given Carla’s viewpoint through hearing what she hears and this makes the film intensely experiential. In the solitary privacy of her home we see her practising, with a degree of yearning, social confidence in front of her tarnished bedroom mirror, with sexy clothes and shoes, different to her normal drab garb. Elsewhere the camera doesn’t spare us from gut-wrenching violence. The overall feel of the film is gritty and slightly tarnished, the momentum increasingly building to an exciting finish where teamwork between Paul and Carla and their ability to read the characters of others, playing one off against another, is an essential element.
Both Cassel and Devos (who received the César Award in France for Best Actress) give sensitive, gutsy performances displaying both vulnerability and toughness. Other noteworthy performances include Olivier Gourmet as the nightclub boss Marchand and Olivier Perrier as Masson, Paul’s parole officer.
Masson is the subject of a whole other, just glimpsed, sub-plot. He is seen mostly in brief scenes, often with little or no dialogue, as a sad, lost character whose wife appears to have left him. His story gives the main one between Paul and Carla a time-frame of just three weeks and nicely balances the idea of double lives, those seen publicly on the surface and those inner worlds which truly drive us, which only rarely are matched by another on an intimate level. It makes Paul and Carla’s collaborative achievement all the more fortunate and serendipitous.
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