Jacques Audiard’s “Read My Lips” has been called Hitchcockian, but while it echoes some of Hitch’s recurrent themes and tosses in a few allusions to his work (a central element of the plot involves the central couple peering at others through a rear window, using binoculars no less), it doesn’t really generate much suspense, even during a finale in which one character’s life is threatened. It’s also unlike Hitchcock’s work is that it focuses on the distinctly seamier element of humanity, rather than the suave, attractive people that Alfred almost invariably preferred to focus his lens upon. Actually Audiard’s film has much more in common with moody Gallic thrillers like “Rififi” or “Diabolique,” or the scruffy, pulp-based tales of Claude Chabrol. “Lips” works best as a character study, the dark tale of two damaged people who, in seeking to use one another for their own purposes, gradually develop a sort of grudging intimacy. But a conventional Hitchcockian thriller-cum-romance it’s definitely not.
The principals are Carla (the plain but fragile Emmanuelle Devos) and Paul (the shabbily rugged Vincent Cassel). She’s a near-deaf secretary in a small property development company, clearly dissatisfied with her life both personal and professional. He’s an ex-con whom she hires as her assistant and then protects from both his parole officer and her bosses, even though he lacks the skills necessary for his job. It’s soon clear that Carla showers favors on Paul partially to spite her loathed employers, but also to parade him as a supposed beau in front of her female friends. He, on the other hand, intends to use her ability to read lips to rip off a loan-sharking bar owner who’s forced him to work in his club to pay off a debt. The last act details the pair’s efforts to secure the loot and survive when their plan goes awry and they have to contend with a gang of brutal thugs; the convolutions here are fairly clever, if hardly plausible.
In fact, what makes “Read My Lips” work as well as it does isn’t so much the heist scenario as the chemistry between Devos and Cassel, who convincingly etch characters nearly at the end of their rope. Devos, in particular, draws an incisive portrait of a young woman whose seemingly placid exterior masks a lifetime of deprivation and resentment; but Cassel’s combination of grubbiness and anger is effective too. Audiard and co-writer Tonino Benacquista have also larded the piece with nifty touches that are either psychologically revealing or satisfyingly mysterious. Carla’s habit of turning off her hearing aids in order to shut out unpleasantries, for example, is a canny way of dramatizing her partially self-imposed isolation, and a subplot involving her use of Paul’s shady connections to outmaneuver her office competition and climb the corporate ladder is skillfully handled. There’s also a haunting plot thread involving the disappearance of the parole officer’s wife–a series of brief episodes which at first seem merely intrusive but grow gradually in interest (and dovetail with the main narrative at the end); it has a whiff of a stunt about it, but ultimately pays off.
In the end what distinguishes “Read My Lips” is its noirish bleakness, a refusal to sentimentalize the story of its two “loser” protagonists that’s oddly refreshing in these days of obligatory tie-everything-together-neatly happy endings. The picture is too gritty and harsh to be truly Hitchcockian, but it does share with his films a sense of the unpredictability of the human condition and the suddenness with which individuals can make dangerous choices, and its rawness and vitality give it considerable punch.