Read My Lips, the new film by French writer-director Jacques Audiard (A Self-Made Hero), starts as a case study and then, taking a sharp downward turn in terms of originality, mutates into a caper flick. It’s an intentional genre switch, with Audiart and his co-scenarist Tonino Benacquista taking their time in setting up the complex relationship of its two protagonists before putting the squeeze on. But once the emphasis shifts from character delineation to supposedly suspenseful set pieces, the movie’s fizzy inventiveness goes flat.
Carla (Emmanuelle Devos) is an office drone in a large construction company, the kind of person who’s so nondescript that her co-workers have a habit of setting their discarded coffee cups on her desk as though it were unoccupied. Carla is a movie-ish construct of a plain Jane, wherein an attractive if somewhat unconventional-looking actress is supplied with accouterments that signify her undesirability — you can tell she’s supposed to be a schlub because she wears baggy sweaters, hasn’t styled her hair, looks surly and withdrawn, and hasn’t the cookie-cutter prettiness of her best friend, a chatty bimbo who brags about her hot sex life while Carla gloomily daydreams.
Carla is also partially deaf and given to removing her dual hearing aids when she wants to withdraw from her mundane surroundings, remaining in touch only through her ability to read lips. Audiard uses sound subjectively during the film’s early sequences, drawing us into Carla’s world and giving us an acute sense of her alienated existence — the way she copes with her job by being there just enough to get the work done. But what work she does she does conscientiously, which along with her nonprotesting nature leads to an overload, which in turns leads to her boss suggesting she hire an assistant.
Although, in one of the film’s few humorous moments, Carla words her help-wanted ad in a manner that makes it sound like a lonely hearts plea, what she gets is Paul (Vincent Cassel), a scuzzy small-time thief, fresh out of prison. It’s obvious that Paul is monumentally unqualified for this or almost any other job, but Carla instantly hires him — she knows a fellow lost soul when she sees one, just as we recognize an odd-couple romance when it’s being set up. We’ve been alerted to the seething sexuality just under the surface of Carla’s hands-off demeanor by scenes of her trying on high heels in the privacy of her apartment and posing provocatively in front of a mirror. But at first her relationship with Paul centers around the fact that she’s no longer at the bottom of the office totem pole; Paul’s ineptitude means that for once in her life she has some power over someone.
Intimacy, it turns out, is preceded by larceny. Carla, seeking revenge on a co-worker who has hustled her out of a prime job assignment, has Paul steal an important file, which will get the offending worker into hot water. Having used Paul’s special talent, Carla is asked to reciprocate by using her lip-reading ability to help him with a heist he has planned, ripping off a thuggish nightclub owner where Paul is moonlighting, working off some old illicit debt.
This is where the movie shifts gears, as Carla is stationed on a roof across from the nightclub owner’s office windows, binoculars in hand, waiting to glean some information that will be helpful to Paul. The office power plays and sexual tensions are abandoned for an outlaw-lovers scenario with just enough residual stuff about whether or not they really, really love and/or want each other remaining to slow down the attempts at suspense. Audiard, after having displayed a deft hand in depicting the nuances of neediness, shows a heavier one when it comes to the gangster riffs. Add to that a clumsily interpolated subplot about Paul’s probation officer and his missing wife, whose only purpose is to abet an unlikely happy ending, and it makes for a tedious final third.
This is one of those French films that’s been mentioned as a candidate for a possible American remake, and for once that might not be a bad idea. Sure, it’ll probably bungle all the subtle stuff, but when the dangerous part starts, it’ll probably milk it for all it’s worth. Which is the way it should be done.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.