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[whitespace] 'Read My Lips'
Lip Service Emmanuelle Devos and Vincent Cassel strike back with criminal intent at the world that rejects them in 'Read My Lips.'

Partners in Crime

A desperate office worker and an ex-con conspire in Jacques Audiard's 'Read My Lips'

By Richard von Busack

JACQUES AUDIARD'S last movie, A Self-Made Hero, came out six years ago. On the bright side, Audiard's new film, Read My Lips, is beautifully finished--smooth yet needle-sharp. While Audiard has cited Italian neorealism as a model for what he does in Read My Lips, this thriller is positively not just a wallow in an old style. The film stands in the tradition of great French romantic heist dramas, but it has modern, small-camera intimacy. Most of the action is played out on the face of a woman.

Carla (Emmanuelle Devos) is a spy by birth, because she was born nearly deaf. An overworked executive assistant in a building contractor's firm, she is as pale as milk, and sadness clings to her. The boss allows Carla to hire an assistant to operate the photocopy machine, and so she picks an ex-con whose looks she likes. Just released after a couple of years at the French prison at Fleury, Paul (Vincent Cassel) is unsuited for this kind of clerical work. A debt collector turns up, and Paul strikes a compromise--he'll go to work in a nightclub of his creditor to pay off the huge sum of money he owes.

Every crime, they say, consists of a combination of motive and opportunity. For the first hour, Audiard sets up the motive tightly. He tours Carla's walled-in life: the bleakness of her secret yearnings, the sweetheart deals between her company and the Parisian bureaucracy. The second hour is all about opportunity. Paul and Carla scheme to rip off the club where the ex-con has been indentured. Carla's lip-reading skill will help her find out where the money is kept; Paul will provide invaluable experience on dealing with gangsters. The sexual tension grows between the couple as each uses the other and the time to strike approaches.

Read My Lips is a great crime drama, but it's also a solid romance. Carla teases something out of this discarded man that she can use; she gives him brains, and he gives her toughness. Audiard finds depths in the other characters as well: a fatherly sinner of a parole officer (Olivier Perrier) and even Marchand, the villain. Marchand (Oliver Gourmet), the club owner, is no Mr. Big. He's a bundle of nerves who checks his stash of money again and again, like a man patting his wallet in a bad neighborhood. And we hear his howl of anguish when he finds he's been robbed--for an instant, a knife of sympathy cuts through you.

It's been a long time since Audiard's last movie, and his absence from the screen makes a movie like Self-Made Hero--with its narrative tricks and gags redone and diluted in Amélie--seem all that more impressive. This is a man the movies need, as badly as Carla needs Paul and as badly as he needs her.

Read My Lips (Unrated; 115 min.), directed by Jacques Audiard, written by Tonino Benacquista and Audiard, photographed by Matthieu Vadepied and starring Vincent Cassel and Emmanuelle Devos, opens Friday at Camera 7 at the Pruneyard in Campbell.

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From the July 25-31, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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