- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 31, 2002

The arresting crime melodrama "Read My Lips," exclusively at Visions Cinema, won a Cesar the equivalent of the Oscar in the French movie industry for best screenplay. The distinctive and sardonic approach to character-driven storytelling in a pulp tradition demonstrated by writer-director Jacques Audiard and his co-writer, Tonino Benacquista, probably paved the way for Emmanuelle Devos' prize as best actress.

"Read My Lips" is sometimes unsavory to a fault, especially when maneuvering characters into assaults and prolonged beatings, but it never goes stale. A pivotal reason is that you keep experiencing the principal characters, Miss Devos as a secretary named Carla Bhem and Vincent Cassel as a paroled con named Paul Angeli, as a novel set of outcasts.

The title alludes to Carla's partial deafness, established promptly as she makes the first of repeated adjustments to her hearing aids, concealed from view by the fall of her hair. Employed by a construction firm called SIDEM, she is so defensively hardworking and insecure that when the boss suggests an assistant, she suspects he might be in the mood to sack her.

On the contrary, Carla seems to have made herself indispensable to the daily efficiency of SIDEM. She resents barriers to promotion that she tends to associate with her disability; they must have more to do with her prickly temperament and tense, dowdy appearance.

Anyway, she gets to hire a temp, who materializes in the fairly preposterous form of Mr. Cassel's Paul, a booster of cars and other portable merchandise who blandly lies about his office skills and doesn't seem too astute about the way things are done in the legitimate sector.

Something in his scrounginess and unreliability appeals to Carla. She covers for him while he bumbles around the office. Discovering that he has been spending nights in a storeroom, Carla arranges for Paul to crash on the sly at a SIDEM apartment project that won't be open for occupancy for a while.

Paul jumps to the conclusion that sex is the appropriate payback. It isn't. Not at that juncture. Carla recoils from the overture but soon opens Paul's somewhat unfocused eyes to her actual agenda and potential ruthlessness. She gets Paul to steal something for her, undermining a smug and corrupt salesman who has been a thorn in her side.

The question of being at Carla's melancholy beck and call doesn't confront Paul smack in the face. An underworld creditor compels him to work nights tending bar to pay off the debt. To conceal this obligation from his parole officer, Paul keeps the daytime job with Carla as well.

Always alert to robbery opportunities, he thinks he has spotted one at the boss's gaudy saloon. Returning the blackmail gambit, he recruits Carla to moonlight as a sentry on a rooftop opposite the boss's apartment, hoping that her lip-reading abilities will help reveal a few things useful to planning a heist. Paul himself has taken the initiative to craft a duplicate key.

The filmmakers don't overrate lip-reading to the extent Paul is allowed to do so. We're on far more intimate terms with Carla's struggles and uncertainties when trying to minimize her hearing loss or take advantage in ways that remain not so obvious to other people. While pulling a spy shift with a pair of binoculars, she comprehends only fragments of conversation if occupants happen to be in her line of sight. However, the filmmakers don't invoke the title casually; they give the heroine a stunning, lifesaving application when Paul himself becomes a captive in the apartment.

A bit earlier, her nosiness and risk-taking amateurism combine to jump-start Paul's robbery scheme, which threatens to stagnate until he's a very old bartender. The conceptually droll aspect of this love affair is that the filmmakers treat sexual consummation as a subordinate drive. It can wait until the movie is over, presumably. Foreplay consists of Carla and Paul becoming effective partners in crime, united by successful rip-offs. Their targets are kept personal and crooked in their own right: Carla's nemesis at the office is a bribe-taker, and Paul's boss launders money for mobsters.

You're not even sure that Carla and Paul are likely to remain compatible; it's not beyond the realm of possibility that either could ditch the other the day after tomorrow.

"Read My Lips" doesn't have the sort of humorous glow that "Casablanca" did when Humphrey Bogart's Rick anticipated "a beautiful friendship" with Claude Rains' Capt. Reynaud. What works for the new movie is the illusion that we have been introduced to a match that isn't quite like any other the medium has contrived.


TITLE: "Read My Lips"

RATING: No MPAA rating (adult subject matter and presentation, consistent with the R category occasional profanity, sexual candor and graphic violence, with gruesome illustrative details and recurrent depictions of beatings)

CREDITS: Directed by Jacques Audiard. Screenplay by Mr. Audiard and Tonino Benacquista. In French with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes

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