American cinema is obsessed with the drama of passing: gay people passing for straight, black people passing as white, women passing as men, or (in each case) vice versa.
French cinema is similarly obsessed, but in a cleverer, more subtle and beguiling way.
The big problem for the characters in many contemporary French movies is, in fact being able to pass for normal. The critic Bérénice Reynaud once observed that a typical situation in French cinema involves the often violent and always nervous attempt of individuals to fit themselves into the social order. Everyone is some kind of misfit, and usually unhappy about it.
This is certainly the case with the riveting Read My Lips, directed by Jacques Audiard (A Self-Made Hero, 1995). Carla (Emmanuelle Devos) has a hearing impairment, but does not like to draw attention to the fact. She even refuses to socialise with other deaf people. Everywhere she is tormented by signs of people enjoying normal lives: dating couples, partying revellers, and the sexual abandon enjoyed and reported by her best friend, Annie (Olivia Bonamy).
Paul (Vincent Cassel) has spent time in jail. He will do anything to establish a secure life, including lying to get the job as Carla's office assistant. But his underworld connections are not so easily buried. In a knotty piece of mutual manipulation, Paul and Clara ask each other to perform shady deeds – paradoxically, in order to finally reach that elusive plateau of normality.
The English title chosen for this film may evoke Dirty Harry or George Bush Snr, but the exact sense of the original ("on my lips") points more to themes of communication and eroticism than to the loose, thriller plot. (Fittingly, Audiard's subsequent project, The Beat My Heart Skipped, 2004, was a remake of James Toback's similarly off-tangent Fingers, 1978.)
Audiard and co-writer Tonino Benacquista strike a few craft problems in trying to sustain our interest in the narrative machinations, while at the same time keeping the complex psychological portraits of the characters front and centre. This is especially true in relation to a subplot involving Paul's parole officer, Masson (Olivier Perrier), a laborious set-up which only reveals its true meaning at the very end of the film.
Audiard throws in references for cinephiles – such as the striking presence of Olivier Gourmet, familiar from the films of the Dardenne brothers, and a chunk of action which is a riff on Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) – but he is happiest when he can abstractly lyricise his remarkable stars.
Much of the film is funnelled through Carla's subjectivity: the changes in her aural perception as she takes her earpiece on and off, her stolen glances at Paul's body. Glimpses of her alone in her apartment rehearsing ordinary interactions add further depth to this fascinating, sullen creature.
We learn less about Paul, but Cassel incarnates him indelibly: progressively beaten, bruised and bloodied, he comes to resemble a streetwise Christ-figure from the lower depths. The strange, evolving rapport between Paul and Carla has a slow-burn tension which more conventional romances rarely achieve.
© Adrian Martin April 2003