Robbing in silence in Lips

Published in the Arts section of The Charlatan.
Jan. 16, 2003

As if it wasn’t enough being overworked and treated with contempt by male colleagues: in Read My Lips (Sur mes Lèvres, a French film by Jacques Audiard) Carla Bhem (Emmanuelle Devos) also struggles with the fact that she is hard of hearing and is forced to use a hearing aid in each ear. It can’t help that her attractive friend Annie (Olivia Bonamy) describes passionate extramarital encounters over lunch when Carla can hardly find a date.

When her boss asks her to hire a secretarial assistant, Carla jumps at the chance, taking care to request a 25-year-old male with nice hands. The employment agency sends handsome Paul Angeli (Vincent Cassel), out on parole and with no experience in secretarial work.

However, shy Carla gets quite a bit more than she bargained for when Paul gets her involved in a rather elaborate scheme to rob a gang of thugs (one of whom he owes money to).

The first half of the movie is loaded with symbolism, setting the stage for an odd love story which suddenly explodes into a frenzy of action. Carla’s repressed sexuality is subtly brought to the audience’s attention with the silent scenes of her studying her body in her bedroom mirror, her longing gazes at couples as they whisper love words to each other, her fantasy of being unbuttoned as she lies unconscious after fainting in her office.

However, her character undergoes a transformation as she gets more involved with Paul, who in turn gets some of his rough edges rubbed off as Carla takes care of him. Their relationship also changes from one of rough gratitude to one of co-operation, and then to one of love and need.

While the flow of the movie seemed somewhat uneven, the plot was engaging and the chemistry between the two protagonists was intense, even as they seemed to dance an awkward tango, with Carla and Paul taking turns leading and manipulating each other. Cassel’s gawky ex-con-turned-bartender is the perfect foil for Devos’s alternately pushy and meek Carla, an unlikely Bonnie and Clyde.

Subtlety is the name of the game, with dreamlike sequences (as Carla is left by herself) interspersed with rapidly moving scenes of the daily grind at Carla’s office and the noisy sensuality of the nightclub where Paul works to pay off his debt to a gangster named Marchand.

While we don’t see the lovers’ relationship consummated until the very end, the simmering attraction between Paul and Carla is made obvious with every little action. Their sometimes reluctant partnership is in turns amusing and frustrating to watch.

The side plot of the disappearance of Paul’s parole officer’s wife seemed somewhat unnecessary and utterly confusing, neither enriching the plot nor explaining the character of Masson the parole officer (Olivier Perrier). The scenes of Masson clad in a singlet and boxer shorts, and seemingly unworried about his missing wife not only detracted from the vitality and urgency of Paul and Carla’s scenes, but where also somewhat disturbing.

Read My Lips is a thought-provoking and intelligent piece, brilliantly brought together by a stellar cast and a compelling plot.

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