Carla, an office worker who struggles to pass her day without gouging out the eyes of her bullying male colleagues, is gently persuaded to hire an assistant to help with her daily duties. You see Carla is almost completely deaf and strictly relies on reading the lips of those who speak to her. While she is more than competent in her job, her insecurities have got the better of her and she has began to let work pile up. Her superior advises she seek the help of a trainee, which she eventually obliges to do. Enter Paul (Vincent Cassel) with his sleek hair, handsome moustache and overall cool as ice demeanour. Despite his obvious lack of social skills and abilities, Carla takes a shine to Paul and offers him the job. It’s fairly clear that Carla didn’t need much persuasion when teased in the direction of hiring an assistant. She uses this as a means to unconsciously meet a man. Carla is lonely and feeling more and more like an invisible woman, but when she meets Paul, he switches on something inside her that allows herself to become more ‘normal’. There is no attraction at first and in fact any attraction that does exist is simply in her mind anyway.
Paul is an ex-con who must meet with his parole officer periodically in order to remain a free man. Unlike many woman in her position, when Carla finds out about his troubled past she only ups her efforts to help him succeed. She finds him a disused apartment and offers him advances on his wages to which Paul accepts as an invitation for sex. Wrong. While there is certainly sexual tension lingering in their eye contact, Carla is not quite ready to be in that position so to speak. When she asks Paul to steal documents from a work colleague so she can use them in a meeting, he first refuses but is reminded that he owes her. This is where things begin to get interesting. Carla is transforming from the quiet, solitary girl into a strong minded, knows-what-she-wants woman. The only problem is that she doesn’t fully realise that she is using Paul, or does she?
The plan works, Carla gets praise and a promotion of sorts, but Paul’s life soon descends back into criminal exploits when an old ‘friend’ pays him a visit demanding money. After taking a beating Paul confronts Carla about his money problems but she can’t help. Paul manages to make a deal with the guy he owes the money to by offering to work in his club for free until the debt is paid. Being an ex-con Paul becomes suspicious of his boss when he brings champagne to his private room and notices two familiar faces, well known brothers who just happen to be criminal head honchos. Paul decides to steal money from his boss but needs the help of Carla to spy on him while he is working. Reluctantly Carla accepts, perhaps simply from fear of loosing her only male friend. She hides on an adjacent rooftop and lip-reads the boss’s upcoming heist plan, then reiterates what she finds out to Paul. From this, events inevidably spiral out of control and Paul and Carla must use all of their cunning to escape the hands of the crime gang.
The movie invariably demonstrates a clever yet simple storytelling device throughout when Carla removes her hearing aids and we are left watching silent images, in theory being brought into her life. But however courageous she becomes during the course of the movie, I found it difficult to believe she would let herself be brought into a world of gangsters and heist…and even murder. Of course we are led to believe that this is supposed to signify escapism.
I’ve only been a fan of French Cinema for about ten years or so but in that short space of time I’ve noticed that French movies often offer me something very different from Hollywood. They offer honesty. What starts off as seemingly a tale of unlikely romance between two very different but also strangely similar people never plunges down the predictable route that so many mainstream U.S. movies follow. What actually helps make Read My Lips work is the fact that both characters, despite sharing their anxieties, never share a bed together but still their relationship remains as captivating as any romantic twosome you’re likely to see. In the absence of physical love, lust simmers like a bad smell. This is evident when Carla takes Paul’s shirt home to wash but instead holds it to her face, smelling his natural fragrance. It’s an intimate look into her reclusive life. The excitement of their continual teamwork during the attempt at stealing money from the club owner also goes some way to prove that both Carla and Paul are kindred spirits. Both unjustly banished by society (albeit in very different ways) and both who remarkably excel when cornered into particular situations.
Emmanuelle Devos manages to have us eating out of her hands by the end. It’s almost impossible not to be in her corner throughout the movie. Although she squeezes every ounce of vulnerability from herself within the first thirty minutes, she still shines later on when her confidence grows and she can have a bit of fun. While not quite delivering a performance with the same intensity as say La Haine or Irreversible (the role never really asked of that anyway) Cassel doesn’t disappoint and once again shows off his extensive range. Even during the more tender moments, Cassel reeks of virility, while maintaining just the right amount of delicacy.
Neither a love story or a crime story but something more, a story about two introverted human beings who learn to discover that loneliness in numbers can actually create a powerful combination.
Gavin Logan – Follow me on Twitter