In the horror films of the seventies and eighties, violence was punishment for sex. The young camp counselors, hormones raging, would finally give in to their throbbing urges when — BAM! — the psychotic killer chalks up two more victims.
But times they are a-changing, and the French are leading the way. Read My Lips now says that sex is the reward for a life of crime.
Carla is partially deaf. With her hearing aids in she can answer phones (she’s a secretary in a contractor’s office), but she grew up deaf. From her lonely corner of the cafeteria, she can read the lips of her coworkers. When they talk about her at all, it’s only to joke about her homely, awkward life. Apparently the character Carla is ugly, even though she is played by the lovely Emmanuelle Devos.
After a particularly stressful day, Carla’s boss tells her to hire a helper. She goes to the employment agency for a secretarial assistant. Male, young, and good-looking is what she’s looking for. The agency sends over a convicted felon, Paul (Vincent Cassel), who is male and young, but dirty and styleless instead of good-looking. He is also completely unqualified for the job. Carla takes pity on him and hires him anyway.
These enigmatic characters really drew me in. I wanted to know what made them each tick. There is unquestionably a spark between Paul and Carla, but why? Why would a goody-goody office girl hire a street tough? Why would a street tough look for office work? And what could they possibly offer each other? The characters seem so uncomfortable that, inevitably, they will be asking each other these same questions.
The movie takes a long time introducing the characters before it gears up into “thriller” mode. In a lesser movie I might have lost patience, but I was happy to linger on our two unlikely heroes. They make for an excellent character study, and I was happy to let them take their time as the movie slowly started setting up its structure. The thriller plot, which only unfolds later, is the icing on the cake.
The thriller kicks in when Marchand (Olivier Gourmet) shows up looking for Paul. Marchand is a crime boss to whom Paul owes 70,000 francs. Marchand insists that Paul work for him at his nightclub until the debt is paid. Paul has no choice but to accept. In the bar, in a plain black t-shirt, in his natural environment, Paul becomes scruffy-handsome instead of just plain scruffy.
Paul knows Marchand is up to something big, but he doesn’t know what. Whatever it is, he wants a piece of it. He discovers a window across the street from the club where he can see the men planning and plotting. If only he could read their lips, he could intercept their plan and find a way to make it work for him.
Girls Night Out
Hoping Carla can read their lips, Paul invites her to the nightclub. Carla thinks she’s being invited on her first date in years, and it gives her self-confidence a needed boost. When she finds out this isn’t a date, she’s resentful, but like Paul, she has emerged from her cocoon, and there’s no going back in. She goes from frumpy-beautiful to just plain beautiful.
With binoculars, Carla is able to read the conversations and she conditionally agrees to spy on Marchand. In exchange, she demands that Paul continue working at the office. She has uses for his subterfuge and muscle, both inside the company and out.
Paul and Carla complement each other beautifully, and each becomes more beautiful in the process. And although there appears to be a mutual attraction, both characters are restrained and focused. Only a brief touch or a longing look is allowed until business is transacted.
The climax and conclusion are quite satisfying, partly because these are two characters you can really root for. Both started out as losers, but with each other’s help, they gain confidence, beauty, and success.
The well-structured script was quietly put to work early on. Without letting on, the film was tying up loose ends while it looked like it was still introducing characters. The smart storytelling means that when the end comes around, there are no forehead-smacking coincidences, only logical conclusions to not-so-unrelated subplots.
At the beginning of this review I lied about the film’s moral. I said that sex was a reward for crime, but really, if the two characters get to consummate their relationship, it’s not a reward for their leap into crime, it’s because they were able to elevate each other from their sad and lonely status quo. A better way to phrase it is to say that intimacy is a reward for mutual sacrifice. It’s a moral that makes more sense than any slasher flick, even if the characters themselves are a little immoral.