Sur Mes Lèvres [Read My Lips] (2001)

It’s strange, I never even noted the production or release years of this film and, due to a colour filter used on the cover, was under the impression it was from the 60s or 70s. Of course, it was 30 or 40 years later that it was actually made, and that results in a completely different framework for the filmmakers to start from. I felt some tingle of recognition from the name Vincent Cassel, but I couldn’t place it. Looking up his credits, I’m still not sure why. Yeah, I’ve seen Le Pacte des Loups (The Brotherhood of the Wolf) and Elizabeth and want to see The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, but I can’t think of him in any of those movies.

Carla (Emmanuelle Devos) is a mostly deaf woman working as a secretary in an office. She uses two earpieces to manage normal hearing, keeping her hair down over them out of a certain shyness about this, but is still trod upon–more likely due to her quiet demeanour, politeness and occupational position than her disability, though that remains a likely culprit as well.She reads lips–hence the title–but does primarily use her aids. When she finally faints one day at work, her boss offers to hire an assistant for her–kind of a pleasant surprise, a helpful boss with all of these disrespectful coworkers?–and she accepts this. Her friend Annie (Olivia Bonamy) mentions her very, very active sex life and re-ignites Carla’s lust, leading her to specifically request a young, male in particular for the assistant’s position she’s been allowed to hire. Enter Paul (Vincent Cassel), a rather dishevelled gentleman with a grubby moustache who says he has come to take the position on. Immediately defensive, Carla interviews him and finds him attractive, but is wary of the fact that he has just left prison. Still, she finds herself helping him to temporary housing, new clothes and his job–for which he is horribly undereducated–leading him into a feeling of obligation, which he first mistakes for something she wants only privately and is too shocked to accept when offered. Instead, she asks for his help as an ex-thief, to regain the work–and associated benefits–that she has been denied by self-serving coworkers. Soon the two are entangled in using their respective talents to benefit the other in illicit ways, growing closer in a dark, lusty way, rather than a cute romance–though certainly there’s a bit of that kind of chemistry between the two actors.

Devos is excellent in her role, showing a strong woman cowed too many times, who remains just as submissive in most situations but will take a dominant position eventually when given the tools and opportunity to take it. Paul is reluctant to get involved in illicit activities again, taking his parole seriously, with hawk-eyed parole officer Masson (Olivier Perrier) interviewing him regularly about his progress. He is drawn in unwillingly though, and Cassel manages these transitions just as well as Devos does hers, the two circling each other in a mating dance that almost seems to bear points of hostility to prove oneself to the projected mate. It’s fascinating, and with a supporting cast composed primarily of unseemly characters like loan shark Marchand (Olivier Gourmet)* that manages to push and prod the two of them into increasingly dangerous territory, a movie that starts out about the social position inhabited by the disabled rapidly turns into a clever, intelligent thriller of intense suspense that uses audio cues to manipulate the audience into sharing in Carla’s way of hearing the world–audio is muffled when her aids are off, and accompanied by the rustle of them being replaced when she replaces them–and brings us ever closer to her view of everything.

*OK, what is this, “Oliver Foodterm” movie? I know, I know, they’re French words with those associations in English, but two in one movie?

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