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!)