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For those of you who have seen this rather extraordinary romantic
thriller noir, my review title is self-explanatory: this is cinema
verité for the 21st century. For those of you who haven't, let me note
that this begins slowly, so stay with it. You won't regret it.
What French director Jacques Audiard has done is create a taunt noir thriller with a romantic subplot intricately woven into the fabric of the main plot, told in the realistic and nonglamorous manner usually seen in films that win international awards. In fact, Sur mes lèvre did indeed win a Cesar (for Emmanuelle Devos) and some other awards. For Audiard character development and delineation are more important than action, yet the action is extremely tense. The romance is of the counter-cultural sort seen in films like, say, Kalifornia (1993) or Natural Born Killer (1994) or the Aussie Kiss or Kill (1997), a genre I call "grunge love on the lam" except that the principles here are not on the road (yet) and still have most of their moral compasses intact.
Vincent Cessel and Emmanuelle Devos play the nonglamorous leads, Paul and Carla. Carla is a mousy corporate secretary--actually she's supposed to be mousy, but in fact is intriguing and charismatic and more than a wee bit sexy. But she is inexperienced with men, doesn't dance, is something of a workaholic who lives out a fantasy life home alone with herself. She is partially deaf and adept at reading lips, a talent that figures prominently in the story. She is a little put on by the world and likes to remove her hearing aid or turn it off. When she collapses from overwork her boss suggests she hire an assistant. She hires Paul, who is just out of prison, even though he has no clerical experience. He is filled with the sort of bad boy sex appeal that may recall Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard's Breathless (1959) or even Richard Gere in the American remake from 1983. We get the sense that Carla doesn't realize that she hired him because she found him attractive. When Carla gets squeezed out of credit for a company deal, she gets Paul to help her turn the tables. From there it is but a step to a larger crime. Note that Carla is unconsciously getting Paul to "prove" his love for her (and his virility) by doing what she wants, working for her, appearing in front of her girl friends as her beau, etc.
The camera work features tense, off-center closeups so that we see a lot of the action not in the center of our field of vision but to the periphery as in things partially hidden or overheard or seen out of the corner of our eyes. Audiard wants to avoid any sense of a set or a stage. The camera is not at the center of the action, but is a spy that catches just enough of what is going on for us to follow. Additionally, the film is sharply cut so that many scenes are truncated or even omitted and it is left for us to surmise what has happened. This has the effect of heightening the viewer's involvement, although one has to pay attention. Enhancing the staccato frenzy is a sparse use of dialogue. This works especially well for those who do not speak French since the distraction of having to follow the subtitles is kept to a minimum.
Powering the film is a script that reveals and explores the unconscious psychological mechanisms of the main characters while dramatizing both their growing attraction to each other and their shared criminal enterprise. But more than that is the on-screen chemistry starkly and subtly developed by both Devos and Cessel. It is pleasing to note that the usual thriller plot contrivances are kept to a minimum here, and the surprises really are surprises.
See this for Emmanuelle Devos whose skill and offbeat charisma more than make up for a lack of glamor, and for Vincent Cessel for a testosterone-filled performance so intense one can almost smell the leather jacket.
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon!)
'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
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.
French film directors continue to amaze with their extraordinary
ability to simulate the sights and sounds of ordinary, everyday
suburban life. This was readily apparent with the release early in 2002
of L'Emploi du temps ( Time Out ) , a brilliant character study of of a
white collar worker's descent into melancholy after having been fired
from his job. As is the penchant of French filmmakers , many scenes
were shot on real streets and in public places, giving a cinema verite
feel to the story , yet L'Emploi du temps also possessed an elegant
look thanks to excellent camera work and some stunning location footage
( most notably a Swiss mountain retreat ). Running fairly on the heels
of that masterful movie comes another impressive French production,
Jacques Audiard's gritty crime caper, Sur mes levres ( Read My Lips ).
Actually, to tag this film a crime caper does it a disservice because
it is so much more than that. As with the earlier French release, it is
an incisive character study of marginal people using their wits to get
ahead in a society that has turned its back on them. In a Paris
construction firm Carla, a shy, diminutive young woman sits at her
desk, sequestered to an area of the office that is a major pathway to
the xerox machines and restrooms.
Obnoxious coworkers use the front of Carla's desk to chat and drop off their half-finished Styrofoam cups of coffee. Partially deaf, Carla turns her hearing aids on and off at will if noise becomes bothersome, be it the drone of the paper copiers or the shrill crying of a friend's baby. When her boss calls her into the office to suggest that she hire a secretarial assistant to help her with the work load, Carla fears she may lose her job. At the employment office Carla lists the specifications she wants for her assistant (preferably male) as if she were at a Personals Agency. He should be 25 years old and clean -cut , with extensive computer and filing skills. When the agency sends over an unkempt , menacing looking young man, Carla is both shocked and intrigued. They leave the office and have lunch at a local eatery, where Carla interviews her prospective assistant. When she finds out that he has just gotten out of prison , Carla initially wants nothing to do with Paul, but has a change of heart and hires him on. Although she is basically kind toward her helper, Carla now finds herself in a position of authority and possessing a newfound sense of power. Paul learns quickly and becomes an able worker. Carla helps Paul find a temporary place to live and even covers for him when his parole officer shows up one day at the office wondering why Paul missed his appointment. During one of their lunch breaks Carla informs Paul of her hearing deficiency and reveals her ability to read lips. Later, when an avaricious coworker blatantly takes over a project Carla has been working on, a furious Carla asks Paul's help in seeking revenge on the man. From here on in Sur mes levres becomes an increasingly intense crime drama escalating into some of the most violently graphic scenes that have been shown on the screen in recent years. The screenplay borrows elements from Hitchcock, most notably REAR WINDOW, where Carla's lip-reading talent comes into full play using a pair of binoculars. There is a teasing, on-again, off-again sexual attraction between the two protagonists that culminates in a rather strange homage to NORTH BY NORTHWEST, but it works because of the considerable sexual heat that builds slowly between the two stars. That being said, what one carries away from this movie isn't so much the similarities to classic Hitchcock thrillers, although those elements are definitely there, but the pervasive view a of a modern day city (in this case Paris) where life runs the gamut from mundane workdays to a boozy, garish nightlife where sex, drugs and laundered money infiltrate the lives of several characters. Unlike Hollywood productions, this is a psychological suspense yarn where the people look like the everyday man and woman on the street, where a punch in the face or groin sounds like a sickening thud and where the office is a place to be feared. It's Hitchcock with the gloves off.
I watched this movie over the span of two days. The whole day after watching
the first part, I was distracted by recollections of the imagery and just
basic feel of the movie and couldn't wait to see the rest.
It was so refreshing to see a movie with a captivating plot and sensuality without excessive sexuality. The directing and editing tied everything together wonderfully. Definitely a nail-biter towards the end and fast-paced enough to keep one interested but not so much so that it leaves one confused.
I can't think of anything negative to say about it. If only they made movies this good in America these days.....
If you're a fan of film noir and think they don't make 'em like they
used to, here is your answer - they just don't make 'em in Hollywood
anymore. We must turn to the French to remember how satisfying a
well-made film from that genre can be. Read My Lips is a wonderfully
nasty little gift to the faithful from director Jacques Audiard,
featuring sharp storytelling and fine performances from Emmanuelle
Devos and Vincent Cassel.
The basic plot could have been written in the 40's: dumb but appealing ex-con and a smart but dowdy femme fatale (who turns out to be ruthlessly ambitious) discover each other while living lives of bleak desperation and longing, manipulate each other to meet their own ends, develop complex love/hate relationship, cook up criminal scheme involving heist, double crosses, close calls and lots of money. All action takes place in depressing, seedy and/or poorly lit locations.
Audiard has fashioned some modern twists, of course. The femme fatale is an under-appreciated office worker who happens to be nearly deaf and uses her lip reading ability to take revenge on those who marginalize her. And where you might expect steamy love scenes you discover that both characters are sexually awkward and immature. Add in a bit of modern technology and music and it seems like a contemporary film, but make no mistake - this is old school film noir. It's as good as any film from the genre and easily one of the best films I've seen all year.
This was one of the DVD's I recently bought in a set of six called
"Frenchfilm" to brush up our French before our planned holiday in
beautiful Provence this year. So far, as well as improving our French
we have considerably enhanced our appreciation of French cinema.
What a breath of fresh air to the stale, predictable, unimaginative, crash bang wallop drivel being churned out by Hollywood. What a good example for screenplay writers, actors, directors and cinematographers to follow. It was so stimulating also to see two identifiable characters in the lead roles without them having to be glossy magazine cover figures.
The other thing I liked about this film was the slow character and plot build up which kept you guessing as to how it was all going to end. Is there any real good in this selfish thug who continually treats his seemingly naïve benefactor with the type of contempt that an ex-con would display? Will our sexually frustrated poor little half deaf heroine prove herself to the answer to her dreams and the situation that fate has bestowed upon her? The viewer is intrigued by these questions and the actors unravel the answers slowly and convincingly as they face events that challenge and shape their feeling towards each other.
Once you have seen this film, like me you may want to see it again. I still have to work out the director's psychological motive for the sub plot in the role of the parole officer and some of the subtle nuances of camera work are worth a second look. The plot does ask for a little imagination when our hero is given a chance to assist our misused and overworked heroine in the office. You must also be broad minded to believe in her brilliant lip reading and how some of the action falls into place. But if you go along for the thrilling ride with this example of French cinema at its best you will come out more than satisfied. Four stars out of five for me.
I must admit that I had my doubts about this movie before I was going
to watch it. The main reason for that is because it was compared to a
Hitchcock movie. I've seen several movies that were said to be inspired
by Hitchcock or that could have been made by the 'Master of Suspense'
himself, but so far I haven't seen any of these movie that would be
able to stand the test of time. In my opinion Hitchcock has become a
household name which is too easily used to promote some (cheap)
thrillers, but on the other hand I must admit that I was intrigued by
it because this is a European movie. Normally it's the big Hollywood
studios who like to abuse Hitchcock's name if that can raise their
income. But this movie was made in one of the most chauvinistic
European countries ever and I'm sure that most French would rather drop
dead than to admit that their movies have been inspired by an
Englishman. That's why I decided to give this movie a try and I must
say that I'm glad that I did.
"Sur mes lèvres" or "Read my Lips" as it is called in English, tells the story of a young secretary named Carla. She is a hardworking and loyal employee, but has never been very appreciated by her colleagues. That has much to do with the fact that she suffers from a hearing deficiency, which has denied her to climb up on the hierarchical ladder of the company. But when she is allowed to hire a trainee that can work for her, all this is about to change. Paul Angeli is a 25 year old and completely unskilled ex-convict. The man is a thief, but Carla gives him a chance and covers for him when needed. She hopes to teach him what a regular life should look like, but at the same time he drags her with him in his old life...
Since I still believe that the name Hitchcock is used too often to describe a very good thriller - which this movie definitely is - I will not make any comparisons between Hitchcock and Jacques Audiard's directing. Fact is that the man has done a really good job with this movie. I hadn't heard of him before, but it is true that he knows how to build up suspense and how to keep you interested from the beginning until the end. That also has a lot to do with the very fine and original story of course. I doubt if there is someone in Hollywood who has ever come up with the idea of using a handicapped woman in a powerful role, instead of making her the helpless subject of an abusive husband (you know, the typical TV-movie story).
Also worth noticing is the acting in this movie. Vincent Cassel is quite famous, but Emmanuelle Devos was a complete mystery to me. There is absolutely nothing glamorous about their roles, but they both did an excellent job with their characters, making them feel very believable and realistic. Paul could have been the average tough guy right out of jail and Carla the typically helpless woman, but thanks to their performances, you really believe that these are two strong people who both have had some bad luck in life but who will make the best out of it together.
All in all this is a powerful movie with a very fine script and some excellent acting. Despite the fact that I had my doubts about it, I've soon become one of its greatest admirers. I give this movie an 8/10. Don't hesitate to give it a try.
I settled back to watch "Read My Lips," a plate of Freedom Fries before me.
The food was quickly forgotten as I became engrossed by director and
co-writer Jacques Audiard's original and superb thriller.
Carla (Emmanuelle Devos) is a secretary at a firm that develops major building projects. She actually has some significant responsibilities that don't often fall to secretaries and she's capable and ambitious. And thwarted by a male hierarchy that will exploit but not reward her.
Work piling up faster than she can handle it, Carla is told to hire a secretary. Enter ex-con and general layabout Paul (Vincent Cassel). He lies about his skills and in fact has none that any legitimate enterprise might require. After an initial serious misunderstanding by Paul as to Carla's interest in him, the two become allies. A quirky friendship starts. In a stunt that would have made a real Carla a major contender on "The Apprentice," she trumps her egotistic male adversary at work with Paul's connivance. Exit the rival.
Carla is virtually deaf without her hearing aid. With it she hears almost normally. She turns the hearing aid off to isolate herself from unpleasant sounds and annoying people. She's also very lonely. A heroic makeup effort was made to have her appear plain but she's truly beautiful. She hasn't a boyfriend. She babysits so a friend can have a liaison (it IS a French movie) Worse and humiliatingly, she accedes to a girlfriend's plea that she hang out somewhere while that married friend has it off with her paramour in Carla's bed. Not nice.
As Carla and Paul get to know each other better, the barely repressed larcenous side of the not so former felon emerges. There's a side story, by the way, of Paul's relationship with his parole officer which neatly complements the main plot and has its own big surprise ending.
"Read My Lips?" Ingenious Paul recognizes that Carla's ability to read lips, even from a considerable distance, is more than the amusing parlor trick it first seems to be.
From there a caper develops. Enough said.
Paul and Carla are a true criminal oddball couple. She wants love but will also accept money. He wants her, sort of, but business must come before possible erotic satiation. Together Cassel and Devos are strong actors carrying an unusual crime tale to its end very convincingly.
Rent it or buy it but if you enjoy a good crime story you'll go for "Read My Lips." And you may well want to watch it several times: I do.
"Read My Lips" tells of a strange symbiosis which develops between a plain, socially maladroit female office worker (Devos) and her workplace trainee, a crude excon (Casel). As the film fleshes out this unlikely duo down to their ids they become embroiled in a chilling merging of the minds, each using the other for their own selfish reasons with an extraordinary outcome. Good stuff for anyone into character-driven films with strong psychodramatic undercurrents. In French with easy to read subtitles and good translation. (B+)
I picked this one up on a whim from the library, and was very pleasantly surprised. Lots of tight, expressionistic camera work, an equally tight script, and two superb actors all meld together to make one very fine piece of film. Not for the reptilian multiplex brain, but rather the true aficionado of cinema. If Hollywood ever does get its grimy hands on it, I'm sure it will ruin it. A choice treat all the way around. Other posters here have more than amply sung its praises, so I needn't bother duplicating their paeans; just take their advice, and mine, and don't miss this gem. Call it what you like; I call it two hours of entertainment well-spent. Read my lips: don't miss it.
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