Read My Lips Review
Traditional cinematic portraits of disability tend either to be sentimental and ‘wacky’, as in Rain Man or the recent Sean Penn film I Am Sam, or alternatively are dark, bitter portrayals of frustrated minds turning to intrigue, such as Memento or Rear Window. Although some may prefer the school of thought that, y’know, blind/deaf/amnesiac men or women are people too, the vast majority of intelligent adults will know this already, and will not need a patronising exercise in schmaltz to convince them of this, but would instead be interested in seeing how a character’s disability affects their actions in the context of a story. Therefore, Read My Lips is unlikely to be as revelatory a film about the effects of deafness on personal relationships as Jacques Audiard, the writer and director, might have meant it to be, but strong performances and an increasingly gripping narrative see it through to its thrilling close.
Opening with some borderline irritating stylistic devices, where we ‘hear’ (or, to be more accurate, don’t hear) what the central character Carla (Devos) experiences on a daily basis as she works in an unfulfilling menial job in a large office, the film soon moves up a gear when a greasy, moustachioed and tattooed ex-con named Paul (Cassel) turns up to act as her assistant. Needless to say, Paul is not exactly the sort of man who inspires trust in nuns and old ladies, and, before you can say ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that’, Carla and Paul have involved themselves in a plan to rob Paul’s former employer, a small-time gangster named Marchand (Gourmet), which seems foolproof; at least, that is, until it transpires that there is rather more to Paul than meets the eye. And what has the subplot about the disappearance of the parole officer’s (Perrier) wife got to do with the main story?
Despite a very ‘European’ interest in character development, often at the expense of plot, this is by no means some tiresome exercise in navel-gazing; the film that it comes closest to in recent years is probably the Wachowski brothers’ excellent Bound, which had a similarly offbeat evolution of romance into film noir, complete with an appropriately witty spin on the central love affair (there, they were lesbians; here, their relationship is oddly Platonic for most of the film). There are lots of interesting, if marginal, themes explored throughout the film about this strange relationship that develops between these two outsiders, who have been condemned by society to find themselves ostracised by ‘normal’ society, here epitomised by Paul’s parole officer, who turns out to be far stranger than any other character featured and Carla’s supposed ‘best friend’ Annie, who spends most of her time farming out her child to Carla while she pursues various affairs. Even when the film moves into the more conventional heist-noir crossbreed of the final act, it still manages to throw out several original ideas, such as Carla deciphering the criminals’ plot by lip reading their words from the roof of a building opposite, and the finale is suitably unpleasant.
As any casual follower of contemporary French cinema will know, the presence of Vincent Cassel in a film is a sufficiently good reason to go and see it, and this proves to be no exception. Despite being saddled by greasy hair, a vile moustache and a physical demeanour that makes him look utterly squalid, he still manages to make Paul a charismatic and interesting character, even as we struggle to understand what his motivation is. He is ably matched by Devos, who takes a potentially maddening role and makes Carla a warmly sympathetic character, even if her ultimate ‘journey’ is a rather less interesting one than that of Paul. The supporting cast are all strong, if rather insignificant in comparison to the two leads, and technical credits are all of a high standard.
Ultimately, this may lack the more conventional ‘cross over’ appeal of Cassel’s more commercial works such as Les Rivieres Pourpres or Le Pacte des Loups, but is still an intelligently classy, adult drama with two excellent lead performances, a strong script and enough twists and turns to mean that the average viewer’s eyes will be, if not quite opened, certainly widened to the possibilities of decent cinema existing beyond the local multiplex.