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Read My Lips

Sur mes levres

Just when the phenomenal success of Amelie threatened a flood of rose-tinted, nostalgia-ridden imitations, along comes a series of intelligent, hard-edged and immensely entertaining French movies that wipe the floor with director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s charming but hopelessly insubstantial confection. April sees the release of Laurent Cantet’s brilliant follow-up to Human Resources, Time Out (see page ??), and Claude Miller’s superb Ruth Rendell adaptation, Betty Fisher and Other Stories, opens here in June. Sandwiched between the two is Jacques Audiard’s Read My Lips, which skilfully juggles elements from the romantic comedy and the film noir to fashion an unpredictable and thoroughly refreshing entertainment. All three films prove that cute whimsy of the Amelie variety is a poor substitute for penetrating studies of the darker regions of the human psyche.
Like Time Out, Read My Lips begins in the cinematically unfashionable setting of the workplace. Downtrodden office secretary Carla (Emmanuelle Devos) suffers from hearing problems and is taken for granted by her (mostly male) colleagues. With the skill and humour of a Hitchcock, Audiard immerses us into Carla’s world by manipulating the soundtrack as she plays with the volume on her pair of hearing aids when dealing with the office telephones becomes too much. We immediately sympathise with Carla, who is frustrated by her position at work and the lack of romance in her life (typically, she spends much of her spare time babysitting for a friend who, unlike her, has a very active sex life). Crucially, though, Carla is never presented as a powerless victim. Like all of Audiard’s characters (see A Self-Made Hero), this seemingly ordinary, even shy individual harbours ambitions and is not above a little deceit and manipulation when it comes to getting ahead.
Carla’s chance for advancement comes when she’s allowed to hire an assistant. In one of the film’s beautifully underplayed comic sequences, she is asked by an employment agent to outline the requirements of the position and unwittingly describes what sounds more like a potential romantic partner than a work colleague (amusingly, the agent warns that sexual discrimination is illegal). The droll humour continues when Paul (Vincent Cassel), a hardened criminal just out of prison, turns up looking for a job. Paul is not exactly adept with photocopiers and computers, but he strikes a spark with Carla, who hires him on the spot. At which point the film seems about to settle into a harmless romantic comedy about a pair of misfit characters who will find comfort in each other’s arms. Happily, though, Audiard has other ideas, and Read My Lips takes off into much more intriguing and dangerous territory.
Paul has no real interest in his new position, but he plays along because he wants to keep his parole officer happy and stay out of prison. The street-smart punk is slightly bemused by his boss’ interest in him, which at first has little to do with romance. Carla has to blackmail him to get revenge on an arrogant colleague by stealing a company file (her triumph will get a cheer from put-upon secretaries everywhere). She returns the favour by covering for Paul when he drifts back into his old life by taking a second job at a bar owned by a gangster. Things get really scary when Paul’s plan to rob the gangster of his drug money goes disastrously wrong, and the scam is saved only by Carla’s skill at lip reading.
As in 1995’s A Self-Made Hero, Audiard proves himself a master at combining the comic and the serious. With Read My Lips the laughs and the thrills are bound together so tightly that the entire film exerts an exhilarating sense of excitement. This success has its basis in a solid and extremely clever script (co-authored with Tonino Benacquista), which deservedly won this year’s Cesar award (the French equivalent to the Oscar). But Audiard the director must also take credit for the film’s unshowy but incredibly effective style, which involves coming up with just the right camera angle for every shot (he makes particularly good use of close-ups and hand-help cameras to capture the furtive gropings of his couple in tight office spaces). He also elicits terrific performances from his actors, with the little-known Emmanuelle Devos deservedly beating both Isabelle Huppert and Amelie-favourite Audrey Tautou to the ‘Best Actress’ Cesar. Even Vincent Cassel, who is a major star of French cinema but not exactly the most sympathetic of actors, turns in a lovely performance here and is to be congratulated for agreeing to play second fiddle to the wonderful Devos. Congratulations all round, in fact, and here’s hoping that we don’t have to wait too long for Audiard’s next film.

France, 2001. English subtitles. Colour. Dolby digital stereo. 118 mins.

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