Read My Lips (France, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It has been nearly a year since I first saw Read My Lips, and the taste of the film still lingers. Time may leech away the specifics, but the overall impression remains. So it is with many great films. By far, the most impressive French film I saw at 2001 edition of the Toronto Film Festival was Read My Lips, the fourth feature from director Jacques Audiard. Although the movie contains elements of a romantic thriller, it is equally powerful as a drama. The two main characters are effectively developed and fully realized. In fact, it's the protagonists - in particular, the interaction between them - that drives this motion picture forward and keeps us involved. However, unlike in many character studies, the plot is more than just a simple framework. It is complex and unpredictable, and, as a result, provides the perfect means to better get to know the characters and understand the shifting nature of their relationship.

Carla (Emmanuelle Devos) is a hearing-impaired 35-year old woman who works as a secretary in a property development company. Her life is ruled by routine - she never goes out and is always available to babysit for her friends. She longs to move forward both in her career and in her personal life, but, encumbered by her hearing deficiency, she is unsure how to do so. One day, when her bosses decide she needs an assistant, she takes on an unskilled but charismatic 25-year old man, Paul (Vincent Cassel). Paul is an ex-con, fresh out of jail, with no place to live. Carla is immediately attracted to Paul, and he recognizes this, and decides to manipulate the attraction for his own purposes. In return for helping her with her career goals, Paul persuades Carla to use her lip-reading abilities to aid him in casing out an apartment he intends to rob.

The acting is at the highest possible level. Emmanuelle Devos gives a flawless, emotionally stirring performance. Devos wears Carla like a second skin; her eyes, face, and body language express as much - or more - than her dialogue. Vincent Cassel is explosive as Paul - a volcanic personality who always seems to be on the verge of erupting. The chemistry and sexual tension between these two, largely sublimated and never vocalized, simmers just beneath the surface as the realist (Paul) and the romantic (Carla) adjust their expectations to meet in the middle.

Audiard does a remarkable job of interweaving forceful drama with thriller elements. Read My Lips is well paced, and concludes with an unexpected twist. To bring us more into Carla's world, Audiard occasionally gives us her point-of-view, not only visually but audibly. As Carla removes her bulky hearing aid, the film's audio drops off into near-muteness, giving us a sense of what it is like to be in her position. This, like many other details employed by the director, builds strong character sympathy. Read My Lips is the kind of top notch foreign movies that often cannot be seen outside of film festivals. As a result, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that the movie was picked up by a small U.S. distributor (Magnolia). The bad news is that it may never make it out of the New York and Los Angeles markets - at least until it heads for what has become the salvation of independent film lovers: home video.

Read My Lips (France, 2001)

Ranked #9 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2002
Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2002-07-05
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence, Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity)
Subtitles: French with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1