by Walter Chaw
READ MY LIPS (2001)
Sur mes lèvres
starring Vincent Cassel, Emmanuelle Devos, Olivier Gourmet, Olivia Bonamy
screenplay by Jacques Audiard and Tonino Benacquista
directed by Jacques Audiard
Suffused with intelligence, courage, and the unmistakable taint of life, Jacques Audiard's remarkable Read My Lips is a brilliant picture with a few problems that, because they exist in so carefully structured a film, will probably iron themselves out under more careful reconsideration. At the bottom of a corporate jungle inhabited by wild boors, Carla (Emmanuelle Devos, winner of the 2001 Best Actress César for this film) is a kettle of repressed sexual desire and a repository for the petty indignities of being rumpled and plain (and deaf but for her hearing aids). When she faints from exhaustion, triggered perhaps by the spilled coffee of coworkers who habitually leave their cups on her desk, her boss suggests she take on an assistant. Enter the tragically unqualified ex-con Paul (Vincent Cassel), who awakens the Lord of the Flies in Carla, allowing her basest desires a catalyst and her well of sin to overflow. Here is a person indebted to her and under her control--a Carla for Carla, if you will. Read My Lips is all about predation, perception, and power, divided into three segments by a wordless image that encapsulates the picture's preoccupation: Carla standing naked before a dirty mirror, head excluded, considering; calculating. Carla suspects her power, rehearsing her coyness to an empty room and discarding her brown cardigan for a tighter uniform as her confidence grows. Though Read My Lips can ultimately be described as something of a post-noir caper flick, Audiard's gift is knowing that his story is really about Carla allowing herself to be vulnerable again after getting her first heady fix of power. Endlessly clever and honest, Read My Lips is alive and vital and demanding an active viewership, rewarding participation with an expert denouement and a brilliantly insightful exit scene that provides a compelling argument for Audiard's "auteur" status with this, only his fourth film.