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Young secretary Carla is a long-time employee of a property development company. Loyal and hardworking, first to arrive and last to leave, Carla is beginning to chafe at the limitations of her career and is looking to move up. But as a 35-five-year-old woman with a hearing deficiency, she is not sure how to climb out of her humdrum life, though she is confident in her own abilities. Into her life comes Paul Angeli, a new trainee she decides to hire. Paul is 25 years old and completely unskilled, but Carla covers for him when the need arises because of his other qualities - he's a thief, fresh out of jail and very good-looking. It's a case of good meeting bad. Written by
Sujit R. Varma
Deft, fresh crime story adds luster to director Jacques Audiard's name
'Sur mes Lèvres' (`Read My Lips') is so focused on its two main characters it's claustrophobic, but the payoff is that we get inside their lives and stay inside for a very concentrated and interesting 115 minutes.
Jacques Audiard has crafted a unique character-driven crime movie with a fresh visual style and a compulsively watchable story. Emmanuelle Devos won the César for her performance as Carla the deaf office worker, and she dominates the movie along with the sexy, sleazy Paul (Vincent Cassel), a recently paroled petty thief. The movie is about their odd relationship -- mutual exploitation, let's call it -- and about the successful caper that results as well as Carla's newfound power at the busy property development company where she hires Paul, despite his complete lack of office skills, as her assistant. It's obvious she's lonely and looks on this as a chance to get a man, but it's also a chance to have somebody to kick around the way she's been kicked around at the office, and, when she sees the value of it, a chance to use his muscle and menace to bolster her job.
What neither of them anticipates is the way their mutual dependency and very different skills lead them into intimacy and crime -- not necessarily in that order. Audiard, who co-scripted the film with Tonino Benacquista, and who's known for the richly entertaining `A Self-Made Hero' (`Un Héros Très Discret," 1996), adopts here a very selective, liquid, often claustrophobic way of filming and editing. He uses a lot of tight close-ups, dark lighting, and fast cuts between scenes that are as rapid and unceremonious as Benoît Jacquot's in the 1998 `School of Flesh' (`L'École de la Chair'). We know we have to stay on our toes. We're expected to pay close attention and do some thinking.
We also often feel we're spying on people from Carla's point of view, as she does when she reads the lips of gossiping coworkers for herself (and later for Paul) at the office canteen, or when at Paul's prompting she uses binoculars to read lips in a gangland nightclub owner's apartment that Paul starts casing out after he's forced because of a debt to moonlight at the club. In her apartment we see her put on Paul's bloody shirt naked after he's been beaten, or try on sexy new shoes the same way, and again the camera angle is dark and close up so we only glimpse parts of her in the dirty mirror. (There's a parallelism between iris-ed images in the movie and Carla's limited hearing.) This is an intrusive, expressionistic camera, but the editing makes us maintain an alert distance as the plot moves from Carla's initially limited existence to its transformation by the explosive personality of Paul and the more and more dangerous embroilments that happen when the two become a mutually exploitive team.
We keep seeing the characters enter into yet one more new scene that we sense is risky without quite knowing why. Somehow we're detached and scared at the same time. Paul and Carla each create a world of uncertainty and peril for each other. There's a growing unease that turns into increasing excitement and danger, and finally there's Hitchcockian suspense effectively augmented by forceful cross-cutting between Carla watching the gangsters through the apartment windows after a heist and Paul manning the noisy nightclub bar, which now also has become a threatening place.
The movie has flaws. An airline ticket seems to have wings. Carla is too magically able to carry out Paul's instructions, gathered only from a few hastily mouthed words lip-read between two buildings. A subplot concerning Paul's parole officer (Olivier Perrier) is superfluous and confusing. Given that so much effective use is made of varying sound levels to convey Carla's hearing with and without her two hearing aids -- turned up, turned down, or removed -- the musical background score in non-nightclub scenes is obtrusive.
But what's strong about this movie is that it has two actors with the power to dominate the screen, and a director who works with a lot of authority and freshness in presenting his vision.
Emmanuelle Devos' characterization as the mousy but smart and persistent Carla is so rich and assured we may just take it for granted -- but the French film industry didn't, since they not only gave her the César, but did so in a year when the other contenders were Charlotte Rampling in `Sur la Sable,' Audrey Tautou in `Amélie,' and Isabelle Huppert in `La Pianiste." Vincent Cassel, who's said he's an instinctive actor, simply embodies his part: it's his prison tattoo, his sleazy mustache, his oily hair, and his tall, wiry, threatening physicality that make him both repulsive and sexy as Paul. We experience here the powerful onscreen presence that's turned him into one of the hottest young film actors in France since he starred in Mattieu Kassovitz's `La Haine' in 1995. (He was seen in the US last year in the enjoyable costume flick, `Le Pacte des Loups,' and is in a lot of new movies to come.)
People are saying this is sure to lead to an American remake with big stars. Maybe so, but it's Audiard's vision that makes the picture interesting. All the Hollywood stars in the world won't take the place of Audiard's handheld camera and mercurial editing style, or a unique talent that combines sensitivity to the indignities of office workers and parolees with the ability to reinvent film noir tradition.
Also unique -- and unlikely to survive an American remake -- is the repression of sexuality between Paul and Carla, which makes the sexual tension between them seem all the more powerful throughout this tightly constructed, economical movie.
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