If you ever find yourself involved in one of those discussions about why people get all excited about foreign films, and why those films can make Hollywood look so bad, kindly point the devil’s advocates towards Read My Lips.
You’ve seen this basic premise so many times that you could construct the script out of spare parts. Repressed man/woman gets involved with a bad girl/boy. Initial antagonism develops. They get mixed up in crazy misadventures. Rebel helps conservative loosen up. Conservative helps rebel develop a sensitive side. And they fall into bed together before the credits roll.
Now imagine a world where the characters are so compelling that you’d follow them outside whatever tired caper plot they’d been shoehorned into, gladly watching them make toast in their respective apartments because that much care had gone into developing their personalities. Imagine that the whole enterprise isn’t driven by cutesy star-power and an almost pathological urge not to offend anyone. Imagine watching not just because you’re bored and it’s something to do, but because you’re genuinely fascinated by what you’re seeing.
Jacques Audiard’s Read My Lips takes a familiar formula and supercharges it with two magnificently realized characters, stumbling only when artsy flourishes and mechanized plotting get in their way. The repressed half of the equation is Carla (Emmanuelle Devos), a clerical worker at a French construction company. Hearing-impaired and insecure about her appearance, Carla simmers with resentment over slights at work and the lack of a romantic life. Enter bad boy Paul (Vincent Cassel), a recently-paroled petty criminal whom Carla hires to serve as her assistant. Fully aware of Paul’s shady past, Carla tries to help Paul adapt to a job for which he is unqualified. But eventually each of them becomes most interested in using the other to help them get something they want.
That may not sound like the most romantic setup in the world—and it isn’t. It’s also precisely that lack of romanticizing that makes both Carla and Paul so invigorating as cinematic creations. Devos fashions Carla not as a prig who just needs to let her hair down, but as someone whose dark side just needs a little muscle to make it happen. When a colleague horns in an opportunity for her to move up in the company, she has Paul steal a critical file from the guy. When a client of Carla’s company begins making things difficult, she has Paul’s thuggish crony beat a little cooperation into him. Audiard humanizes Carla with quiet moments of loneliness and disappointment, but Devos’ performance refuses to make her innocently cuddly.
Paul, meanwhile, isn’t exactly going to remind anyone of a teddy bear, either. There’s not a whisper of the misunderstood sweetheart in Cassel’s animal performance—his Paul operates on sheer manipulative survival instinct. That means yanking Carla into a scheme to steal from a shady nightclub owner (Olivier Gourmet) by making use of her ability to read lips. It means that when Paul rescues Carla from a parking-lot assault, his first reaction is not concern for her well-being, but to ask whether she can continue her surveillance. These are not very nice people, but their tangled tango of self-interest rarely ceases to fascinate.
Sadly, much of the last half-hour finds that tango losing its tempo. Read My Lips turns into a fairly standard-issue thriller with brutal bad guys, double-crosses and artificially contrived tension. Sprinkled over the action is a forced subplot involving Paul’s parole officer (Olivier Perrier) and his missing wife, which paws for a metaphorical significance it never achieves. Along the way to a more action-packed finale, Audiard forgets that Carla and Paul are too intriguing for such a generic package. Replace them with Ben Affleck and Ashley Judd for the last 20 minutes, and you’ve got basically the same film.
As the formula dictates, the repressed girl and the bad boy do eventually knock boots in Read My Lips. The circumstances under which Carla and Paul’s tryst occurs proves rather disappointing in the way it diminishes the complexity of their relationship, but maybe sometimes, you just have to bow to convention. It’s a relatively small price to pay when the repressed girl and the bad boy are so much more than pieces plugged into a formula.