Read My Lips is the story of Carla, a hearing-impaired secretary at a busy French real estate office. One day her boss suggests that she hire a personal assistant to help her with her hectic job duties. She moves quickly to take advantage of the situation, asking the employment office for a 25-year-old well-dressed guy with nice hands. Instead they send Paul, a grisly young man fresh out of prison.
Predictably, romance develops between Carla, the naiive innocent, and Paul, a former thief. When Paul is dragged back into the criminal world by his old loan shark, Carla must choose between maintaining her clean cut life or helping her new love. Of course she chooses to get involved with the bad guy, and they end up in big trouble.
It sounds like a normal romance/mystery plot, and essentially it is. But there are a few things that allow this movie to avoid the genre’s cookie cutter.
Carla is deaf and equipped with hearing aids that enable her to conveniently increase and decrease the volume. She uses this “special power” to drown out co-workers and pick up conversations from far away. During these situations, the sound of the movie fluctuates as well, resulting in scenes of near-silence and ones pierced with abnormally sharp noises.
Carla can also read lips, which gives her the ever-so-cool advantage of spying on people from an adjacent building with binoculars.
Besides these small quirks, the movie is quite dull. Read My Lips, believe it or not, is the English title, not the French one. Sur mes levres is the title for its original release in France, where it was nominated for nine Cesar Awards, the French equivalent to the Academy Awards. Emmanuelle Devos won Best Actress for the role of Carla, and the film also took home awards for Best Sound and Best Writing categories.
Read My Lips has drawn many comparisons to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, as well as to the film noir genre itself. It is similar to Hitchcock in the sense that it puts normal people in abnormal situations and produces unpredictable results. Its place in film noir is more questionable, due to an excess of romantic undertones, though some of the storytelling methods are similar.
One aspect that stands out is the observation that none of the characters are as glamorous or as beautiful as the average American star. This, along with some moody lighting and soft music, helps give the film an everyday realism. Or, perhaps French people are just ugly – it’s a toss-up.
Director Jacques Audiard has written or directed over a dozen French films in the past two decades, picking up screenplay awards at the Cannes and Stockholm film festivals along the way.
The big problem with Read My Lips is that it’s the kind of movie that should depend entirely on character development, acting and plot. The character development and acting are adequate, but the plot is really not enticing until the last few minutes. It’s interesting to witness Carla’s transformation from a quiet young woman to a partner-in-crime, but the sludge that happens along the way is simply not entertaining. Also, listening to French people talk for two hours is probably a method of torture in less tolerable sections of the globe.
Viewers that consider themselves part of the “mainstream audience,” should avoid this film at all costs. Beyond the snappy subtitles, the film’s plot is not fast enough to capture the attention it yearns for. In other words, this is a flick for diehard fans of French cinema. For everyone else, a theater full of such people should be deterrent enough.
Shawn Wines can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org