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.