In the Class of … series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — seven from 1992 (the extra in June’s double-feature column) and six from 2002. The self-imposed rules of the column: No films with an Oscar nomination and no films among their year’s top-10 box-office grossers.
Anyone articulating their thoughts about a thriller, however casually, will someday describe one as “Hitchcockian.” Rarely is that adjective accurate, at least as it applies to a film’s echoing of Hitchcock’s penchant for MacGuffins, his persecution of viewer voyeurism, his prioritization of suspense over surprise, or even his less-than-gentlemanly preference for blondes.
You can’t blame most moviegoers for misusing it. Like Kleenex, Hitchcockian is branded as shorthand for “intense.” The term is most disposable from those with long histories of talking films for a living or a lifestyle. Newcomers in search of footing earn an exemption; oppressive deadlines and obnoxiously bad days sometimes happen to the best of us, too. In other words: Every critic you trust has done it at least once. But when used too often by versed veterans, it exceeds a description of diminishing returns into linguistic dead space. “Hitchcockian” boasts an air of authority but expresses little to no meaning. Was a film smart, sexual or subversive? Just say that rather than limiting creative tension to clunky word junk.
Like many dangerous dramas before and after (and by the New York Times in this case, the mostly meaningless modifier got slapped on Read My Lips — French director / co-writer Jacques Audiard’s film released worldwide in 2002. Never mind that Audiard is out to transform expectations rather than toy with emotions and delay terrible inevitabilities. Or that the film’s aesthetic does not implicate as much as it immerses. Or, most superficially, that co-star Emmanuelle Devos is a brunette. Is there danger? Certainly. But Read My Lips is hardly a run-of-the-mill thriller. Are there intimate sparks between Devos and her scuzzily handsome co-star, Vincent Cassel? Blinding from the jump. Doesn’t make this a love story, either.
Read My Lips concerns a pair of people who leverage one another’s idiosyncrasies and indiscretions to their benefit. One is new to this game. The other has never considered when to stop playing and save anyone aside from himself. Audiard and co-writer Tonino Benacquista don’t excuse or apologize for either person. Instead, they expertly follow how this clumsily choreographed pas de deux will spin into improvisational, consuming chaos.
Carla Behm (Devos) is an executive assistant with a rigid routine to survive her days at a cutthroat construction firm. Coworkers treat her station as a coaster for coffee cups to knock over. During cafeteria lunches, Carla sits alone — her inward retreat clashing with the bustle, her loneliness enhanced by observing others’ love languages while knowing none of her own.
Carla is also the perpetual babysitter for her best friend, Annie (Olivia Bonamy), who casually speaks of brief sexual dry spells with someone who has perhaps never known such a touch and believes she never might. That’s because Carla is deaf and reliant upon recently acquired hearing aids to get by; the film suggests these devices represent Carla’s first steps in an incremental movement toward independence. Not surprisingly, Carla’s deafness is often the first, and often only, trait people notice about her. Neither does she need auditory assistance for colleagues’ snide comments about her disability to ring loud and clear; she can read their lips.
On a particularly overwhelming workday, Carla faints in a fit of anxiety; Audiard lingers on the space she leaves behind, no one rushing to fill it with concern. Her boss suggests Carla take time off, which she rejects as much out of practicality as pride: She knows that would be a precursor to being pushed out the door. As a compromise, he suggests hiring a temporary assistant — someone to handle day-to-day drudgery as she assists him with closing big-time contracts. Carla would prefer that it be a man. It’s not a workplace-seduction fantasy. She wants someone bored by short-term work who won’t aim to take her place. A man makes sense. (Audiard loosens up for brief social comedy when a temp agency tells Carla she can’t discriminate by sex but is then asked how old she would like this employee to be.)
Enter Paul Angeli (Cassel), disheveled, discombobulated and sporting a rooster hairdo a la Nicolas Cage’s H.I. McDunnough in Raising Arizona. Like H.I., Paul also tells Carla what he thinks she wants to hear — that he’s a whiz with office equipment and spreadsheet programs (particularly “the German ones”). Paul is actually a parolee fresh off two years in prison for aggravated robbery. Banks, cars, stickups. Nothing heavy. “No one got killed,” Paul says, letting the ominous obvious of maiming or injury hang in the air. Amid the constant beeps, pops and whirs of the office, Paul is hapless and helpless. But he deserves engaging work. Would his parole officer, Masson (Olivier Perrier), rather have him sweeping floors at a chicken factory?
Confined to a hostel with a 9 p.m. curfew one step above prison, Paul decides to start sleeping at the office. When Carla finds out, she secures Paul a threadbare apartment in a company building currently under construction. It’s an extension of kindness but also a taste of control — one complicated by Paul’s sudden sexualized response that, while initially unwelcome, reminds Carla she, too, has wiles that can be worked.
“Steal the file. It’s nothing to you.” That’s what she asks of Paul when her biggest project is kicked back to a cretinous coworker. Eager to stay in Carla’s good graces, Paul saves the day and she seals the development deal. Paul seems to pull it off on perception alone of how she’d prefer it to go down — quietly, with as little conspiracy as possible.
Soon enough, Paul is forced into an all-nighter bartending job to pay off 70,000 francs to a kingpin named Marchand (Olivier Gourmet) — a schedule that renders the temp job unsustainable. However, as Paul suspects that big bills float around Marchand’s backrooms, he conscripts Carla for her lip-reading abilities to confirm it. Carla feels guilty about her power play but also strangely energized and empowered … and not a little flattered to be found useful.
Carla’s agreement to help Paul sends Read My Lips crawling out onto a razor’s edge of relationship drama with bare hands. Audiard regularly generates uncomfortable and psychologically complex heat. He spins Carla and Paul’s inhibitions and manipulations into complicated chemistry and, in the final act, a few dizzying twists whose resolutions fall into the laps of people who may be rotten, retaliatory or both.
Among its many merits, Read My Lips never apologizes for the acidity that Carla or Paul asserts in pursuing their respective goals. Neither is terribly likable, but you understand the way their respective systems envelop them. Audiard’s later works, like A Prophet or Dheepan, trend toward more sympathetic protagonists, but muddling the morality here gives this particular cocktail some kick. The same goes for Marc-Antoine Beldant’s sophisticated sound design and Mathieu Vadepied’s lightly jostling handheld aesthetic, which captures the slowly accumulating charge of Carla and Paul’s pointed power struggle and their delayed pleasures.
Read My Lips is not without the sort of narrative digressions Audiard would tighten in those later films. A subplot regarding Masson, and his pursuit of his missing wife, only makes Carla and Paul’s transgressions look angelic by comparison. While it clouds the conflicted response we have to what Paul and Carla do with, and to, each other, it also doesn’t collapse the endeavor.
There’s also not much in the way of deeper meaning here as has become Audiard’s tendency over the ensuing decades — no commentary on French society’s deaf ears and blind eyes to its striving middle class, no mulling over the nation’s difficulties of living up to its mantra of liberté, égalité, fraternité as found in Dheepan. But none of that is necessary in something this carefully predicated on the explosive, exploitative outcomes of emotional heist work. An American version would assert that Carla and Paul are soulmates after all — a glib, fun Thomas Crown Affair sort of thing. Audiard understands it’s a coin flip that two people who run off together will one day return alone. The film is a gradual expansion of a threshold for risk tolerance, enacted with artful, confident patience and a palpable pressure-valve release in its conclusion. Exhilaratingly paced, cleverly plotted and tastefully erotic, Read My Lips plumbs the most emotionally pathological aspects of passion in a puppet-master romance. “Hitchcockian” looks a lot snappier as a pull quote, but it’s frustratingly reductive for the fruitful pleasures found here.