Read My Lips (2001) / Thriller-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language, violence and some sexual content
Running Time: 118 min.
Cast: Emmanuelle Devos, Vincent Cassel, Olivier Gourmet, Olivier Perrier, Olivia Bonamy, Bernard Alane
Director: Jacques Audiard
Screenplay: Jacques Audiard, Tonino Benacquista
With Read My Lips (Sur Mes Levres), it's good to see the essence of Hitchcock still alive and well, and this time it's the substance rather than the style that captures it. Unlike many other thrillers to come out in a similar mold, this one is less predictable than most, with a sometimes ingenious, sometimes frustrating lack of straightforward plotting that is full of surprises, although you may not always like what pops up.
Also unlike many contemporary thrillers, there is a casualness to the development of the plot, which doesn't really present itself until about halfway through, so it's not exactly a taut thrill-ride. In this way it is very similar to Hitch's masterpiece, Rear Window, which took the time to develop and establish the characters to draw you into the story, providing a vehicle to take us wherever the plot was willing to go. That's not the only similarity to the 1954 classic, as there's another plot twist that develops, the voyeuristic watching into a faraway window, that's too much of a tip of the hat to dismiss as coincidence.
Devos plays Carla, secretary in a high bustle office working on the development of property. Although she tries her best, the boss thinks she needs some assistance with some of the more menial duties of the job, so is given the mandate to take on an assistant. Carla doesn't want someone capable as she does someone to take her mind off of her tame lifestyle, stipulating that whoever they hire be young, male, and possess certain physical attributes of her liking. Enter Paul Angeli (Cassel), a mysterious man who claims he can do the work, but proceeds with ineptitude, and it is soon discovered that Paul is a freshly released con out on parole. Carla struggles with her ambivalent feelings of attraction and repulsion for Paul, but her loneliness wins out, and she finds herself thinking of ways she can be with him, but not really. However, Paul has bigger plans, returning to his old ways, and recruits Carla into his scheme due to her near-deafness...and her ability to read lips.
Truth be told, Read My Lips is a very mixed bag once the thriller elements begin to take hold, and some of the more important plot points are so convenient, they would probably break the spell of mystique that is required for any good suspense vehicle. Luckily for writer/director Audiard, he gives us a good build-up with some genuinely intriguing characters, played nicely by the two engaging leads. It would seem that no matter how ridiculous the on-screen developments are, we're already too hooked into the fate of Carla to do anything else but watch, riveted by the myriad of possibilities as to where the ambitious storyline might lead her. Again, character development is key to any good drama, and being the French film that it is, characters are the main driving force rather than plotting, which works for the best, as the plot here is nothing remarkable.
In addition to the fortuitous occurrences that necessitate the climax of the film, there is one other troubling aspect I feel the need to remark upon, and that's the amount of time spent in ridiculous sub-plotting. In fact, one particular subplot, Paul's parole officer searching for his missing wife, is so bizarre and almost completely tangential to the main thrust of the film, you'll be wondering why it's in there at all, and especially in how it relates to the ending of the film enough to showcase it moments before the credits roll. I almost felt like watching the entire movie again just to see if I missed something, but having watched very closely, I can only offer pure speculation for the inclusion, and rather feeble explanations at that.
Yet, for all of the film's significant flaws, the performances of Devos and Cassel, as well as the very adept directorial style of Audiard, do more good than harm. Read My Lips is an old school style of thriller with modern film-making techniques, and quite a good formula for other would-be directors with similar leanings to try to emulate. It's not just the sights and sounds that provide real suspense, rather it's how much we care about the people in them that really gets you chewing on those fingernails. You'll care enough about Carla to start gnawing on those of the person sitting next to you once the ones on your hands are worn through.
© 2003 Vince Leo