Cinema Signal:

French Film Noir

. "Read My Lips"

Never has partial deafness been put to such mischievous use. Never has such unrequited love gone so far toward requitement. Never has criminal potential found such fertile ground. Such are the threads that weave this devious mystery thriller cum love tale and revenge plot with such unexpected twists and character traits.

Physical traits as well. Clara (Emmanuelle Devos) is an almost deaf secretary-executive assistant in a construction firm that plays the bidding game any way it can to acquire business in a highly political, you-help-me-I-help-you pragmatism. Interoffice competition is fierce as jobs that she's researched are lifted from her by others looking for credit and commissions. Sensing her despondency her boss attempts to lift her spirits and her output by suggesting she hire an assistant.

Clara hears okay with her hearing aid but the affliction has enabled her to read lips from afar. Perhaps better than possible in real life. In any case, she proceeds to hire Paul (Vincent Cassel), the first man the agency sends over. Clearly, she's not trained in personnel, failing to ask fundamental questions of the obviously lying applicant, but this simply makes the point that her attraction to him is stronger than concerns about his suitability for the job.

He's totally unsuitable, in fact, never having operated a fax machine, a copy machine, a coffee machine or any other office implement in his entire life, for that matter. What his history contains is a stint in jail, a big debt to a criminal, and an obligation to report regularly to his parole officer (Olivier Perrier), on pain of a return behind bars. What Paul is trained for is little beyond the ready scam, the street intrigue, the quick buck. But, he plays Clara's little game, satisfies his parole officer and even wears very smart office clothes.

Clara, a woman of no great physical beauty and a social life to match, soon has us entwined in her straight ahead predilection for honesty, so we're surprised to see her cover so completely for Paul's shortcomings while training him to do a convincing job of secretarial assistant. But, he hates it, and though he tries honestly to maintain it, a beating by a mob boss's henchman coupled with a demand for the debt he owes, forces him to make a deal with his debtor to work off the amount, causing him to quit the office job for his new position as bartender.

But not before he has noted Clara's ability to read lips and, when he discovers the gangster he's now working for is having meetings with some very bad guys, knowing that Clara would do just about anything for him, he cajoles her into spying on the boss and his plot by reading their lips from a rooftop across the street. Larceny is about to happen and Paul wants a piece, as well as a way out.

Does he want Clara? He says he'll split whatever money may be involved with her, but will he? To find out, see this intricately plotted character piece with such considerable turns of destiny for Clara. Somehow, plain as she is, she comes off as a beauty, whose fate we're grossly involved with as we go along with her delicious deviousness in crossing over to the criminal side of the fence with such problem-solving commitment.

We would have thought she'd never do that; we would have thought we'd never go along with where she's headed; but this is a film that has a handle on the emotional, deadpan levers that keeps us rooting for her, for them, for some pretty unlikely unlikeabilities. Somehow, director/co-writer Jacques Audiard makes it all work so engaging, in fact, that the hand held camera, though tiresome and overused, is sort of beside the point.

If this were a film that had a wide enough audience we'd be thinking in terms of an academy award nomination for Devos, but that's probably not going to happen despite the fact that she won France's "Cesar" award as best actress in that filmloving country.

All casting is superb and the perfectly pitched Cassel as a semi-criminal, a two-bit jailbird with opportunistic tendencies in a world where strength and practicality reign, is a revelation. Even while his creepiness puts you on edge and while you worry about his taking advantage of this poor girl, he has you in his grip. Fascination in him never wanes.

And never in the story. It's a journey on a road seldom travelled, landscaped with poignancy and rare, essentially immoral, black comedy. Perhaps it's as enjoyable a ride as it is because it appeals to the mischievous element in all of us.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Vincent Cassel and Emmanuelle Devos, French crime duo

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