Read My Lips (Sur Mes Lèvres) (2001)

Elena Razlagova

Carla and Paul form an odd couple, slouching towards romance while successfully defending (and defining) their common interests against powerful and dangerous people.

Read My Lips (sur Mes LÈvres)

Director: Jacques Audiard
Cast: Emmanuelle Devos, Vincent Cassel, Olivier Gourmet, Olivier Perrier, Olivia Bonamy, Bernard Alane
MPAA rating: not rated
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
First date: 2001
US Release Date: 2002-07-05 (Limited release)

During a scene in Read My Lips (Sur Mes Lèvres), Carla Bhem (Emmanuelle Devos) is babysitting for her friend. The baby wails. As Carla soothes the child, she takes off both her hearing aid: the baby's crying becomes muffled. With this device, which the film uses repeatedly, we come to understand events from Carla's point of view, or rather, her point of hearing.

Director Jacque Audiard's manipulation of sound won a Cesar (French Oscar) for Best Sound. It also provides for an unusual approach to the crime drama, a genre quite thoroughly explored by his father, Michel Audiard, who directed over a hundred such films, including 1960's Taxi for Tobruk (Un Taxi pour Tobrouk) and 1963's Monsieur Gangster (Les Tontons Flingueurs). Read My Lips uses the flow and ebb of sound to explore the ways that morality can seem relative, depending on our listening choices -- what we hear or opt not to hear.

In this particular case, Carla is one of several underpaid white-collar workers who play deaf to ethical precepts to gain control over their drab surroundings. A plain and lonely 30something secretary in a real estate development office, she is regularly ridiculed and undervalued by her male superiors. Looking for an office fling, she advertises for a young male assistant. The first candidate for the job, Paul Angeli (Vincent Cassel), can't type, fax, or copy, and doesn't know what "outgoing mail" means, but he fits her personal requirements: he is 25 years old and has rakish good looks. These two strangers prove useful to each other. She can read lips. He's just out of jail after serving two years for armed robbery. Together, they form an odd couple, slouching towards romance while successfully defending (and defining) their common interests against powerful and dangerous people.

To begin with, Carla sets up Paul in an apartment in an unfinished building owned by her company. In return, Paul offers sex, but she has other ideas; she asks him to steal a file from a sales manager with whom she has a rivalry. His successful execution of this "job" leads to the manager's departure. Then, when her bosses have trouble with a contractor, Carla arranges for Paul to pummel him into a more cooperative mood. These small victories improve Carla's position within the company, but she remains bitter and lonely. In a recurring scene that illustrates her state of mind, she rides a bus with hearing aids off, removed from her surroundings, only occasionally lip-reading other riders' conversations. An iris matte blacks out most of the frame, so all we can see is what she sees: people's faces and moving lips, a visual equivalent of the muted parallel soundtrack.

Carla's remove disappears as the plot picks up its pace. It turns out that Paul owes 70,000 francs to a nightclub owner named Marchand (Olivier Gourmet), and has to work off the money as a bartender at Marchand's club, so he has to quit his job with Carla. Exploiting her lingering desire for him, Paul convinces her to lip-read (with binoculars from the roof of a nearby building) Marchand's conversation with two thugs planning a robbery, giving Paul an opportunity to snatch the loot right after the heist. Carla agrees. As she takes on the task, she gradually sheds her mousy office image for a more worldly and attractive look. In a noisy nightclub, her lip-reading skills give her an advantage over other customers who can hardly hear each other. She also teaches herself dancing, a skill she previously considered unattainable.

Critics have praised Jacques Audiard for the "complexity" of his main characters in this and his earlier films, A Self-Made Hero (1996) and See How They Fall (1994). In this latest film, however, characterizations may have grown even more intricate than the director originally intended. Audiard explains the main idea of the film to The New York Times as: "An unattractive, intelligent woman meets a handsome, stupid man. Separately, they are nothing, they are outsiders; together, they are powerful."

His description of Carla isn't entirely accurate. She is smart but also naive. Infatuated with Paul, she poses alone before the mirror in her apartment, wearing nothing but Paul's shirt; yet she is aware of being manipulated and not surprised when she learns she has been double-crossed. In return for her services, she asks him not to love her, but to return to her office, so she can boss him around as her assistant.

Paul also does not fit Audiard's description, not being attractive in a conventional sense. Cassel (best known in the States for his work in Mathieu Kassovitz's La Haine and Crimson Rivers, and Christophe Gans' Brotherhood of the Wolf), here mats down his hair and stuffs his nose with paper to change its shape. He at first comes across as slow-witted, but then he sees the danger in Carla's flirting with nightclub customers much earlier than she does, and he is the one who comes up with a clever solution once the pair's robbery plans start to unravel.

At this critical point, the soundtrack suggests the characters' ability to read each other and pull off their plan. In order for the pair to get the money and for Paul to remain alive, Carla, on the roof, has to lip-read Paul, trapped in Marchand's apartment. Her increasingly satisfied moans when she finally understands his silent directions provide the most erotic moment in this unsentimental love story and matter-of-fact thriller.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.