Aka Sur mes lèvres
Originally released in France 17 Oct 2001
Written by Jacques Audiard and Tonino Benacquista
Directed by Jacques Audiard
Starring Emmanuelle Devos and Vincent Cassel
My rating: ★★★1/2 stars
Gritty romantic drama brings together a frumpy office drudge and an ex-con, who form a bond based on mutual exploitation.
Carla (Emmanuelle Devos) is the most overworked, put upon, taken for granted worker at a large contracting firm. Her colleagues barely notice her, except to make fun of her in the lunchroom, while she eats alone. She knows they are making fun of her, however, because she can read lips. Having spent most of her life completely deaf, she now hears (probably after some operation) with the help of hearing aids.
Even in her personal life, Carla is given little consideration. For example, her friend Annie (Olivia Bonamy) asks her to babysit while she goes for a “girls’ night out” to which Carla was not invited. Annie dominates their conversations with tales of her active love life, something the lonely Carla desires but does not have.
When Carla collapses from exhaustion, her boss allows her to hire an assistant. She requests a handsome young man from the employment agent, who translates that as “well-groomed.” The man who appears for the job, recent parolee Paul (Vincent Cassel), however, looks like the least well-groomed man in France. Nevertheless, Carla accepts him, even if his office skills are lacking.
Carla and Paul develop a symbiotic relationship. She helps him get back on his feet while he helps her get back at the colleagues who take credit for her work and appropriate her accounts. When Paul comes under the control of gangster Marchand (Olivier Gourmet), who forces him into slave labor at his nightclub, Paul uses Carla’s ability to read lips to spy on Marchand and learn his plans.
Throughout much of the film, Carla and Paul shamelessly exploit each other, each finding advantage in what the other can provide. They’re both aware of the other’s manipulation, and neither can admit their growing attraction as a result of this knowledge and their unlikeliness as a couple. Yet, it’s this mutual exploitation that brings them together.
Carla and Paul are too guarded and cynical to admit their feelings for each other. Much of the film sparks with unresolved sexual tension. Too many modern films, in the rush to bring the characters together, don’t allow unrequited desire to build the way this one does. This film knows that romance thrives on boundaries (at least in narratives, if not real life).
Devos deservedly won a César (the French equivalent of an Oscar) for her performance as Carla. It’s a performance with many layers. At first appearance, Carla seems mousy and unassuming, likely forced into that role by a lifetime of deafness. But under that meek veneer is a well of repressed anger and desire. Carla is no pitiful shrinking violet, and Devos makes her even unlikeable at times. Nevertheless, Carla remains a sympathetic character to the audience. One minor flaw in the movie is that, while Carla is supposed to be homely—one coworker calls her a dog—Devos is a strikingly attractive woman.
Cassel is magnetic as Paul; his performance here evidences why he’s the most popular French leading man of his generation. He gives off an unbounded energy that seems ready to burst out of the screen. In the other performances of his that I’ve seen, he comes off as cunning and intelligent, suggesting that his characters are always thinking. But here he does not, thus, demonstrating his range. Paul may be streetwise and show remarkable ingenuity under pressure, but, throughout the film, Cassel gives a sense that Paul is acting extemporaneously and reacting to external circumstances, not plotting ahead.
Visually, the film is color graded slightly green, making everything in the film look grungy and dismal. It doesn’t have the warm tones that we would usually expect from a romance. The appearance of the film suggests the unhappiness of the characters and the bleakness of the world they live in. Only in a world this dysfunctional could these two disparate characters come together as a couple.
The camerawork and editing give the film a choppy, disjointed feel. Instead of a story being displayed for us, the odd angles and extreme close-ups and the jumping from one view to another mirror the perception with which we experience the world, with its limiting subjectivity.
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is its similarly subjective use of sound. In many scenes, we’ll hear the movie from Carla’s point-of-view. When she turns off her hearing aids, the movie goes silent. In a key scene, she turns one aid up to amplify muffled sounds that normal hearing couldn’t capture.
The biggest flaw in the movie is a pointless subplot involving Paul’s parole officer, which bears no connection to the rest of the film.
Read My Lips lacks the trappings of a typical movie romance. Indeed, by the end, it seems like a crime film. But, the main purpose of the movie is to bring two characters together, for them to find their lives made better by the addition of the other. And, that, after all is what romance is all about.