Sur mes lèvres (Read My Lips)

(2002) *** 1/2 Unrated
115 min. Magnolia. Director: Jacques Audiard. Cast: Vincent Cassel, Emmanuelle Devos, Olivier Gourmet, Olivia Bonamy, Olivier Perrier.

At the core of Jacques Audiard's unusual Read My Lips is a basic heist genre yarn. Over that chewy candy center are the multiple layers of two distinctively down-and-out characters: a put-upon secretary and a recent parolee. Audiard's delicious story poses the question: how many licks must they take to get to the center of this culture pop?

In what looks to be the performance to beat this year, Emmanuelle Devos plays the secretary, Carla, whose only escape from maddening mistreatment is to pull off her hearing aid and retreat into her near deafness. Vincent Cassel (Birthday Girl) plays Paul, the ex-con, endearingly shifty in his grubby discomfort when he lands the job as Carla's office assistant. Theirs is a depraved and oddly sexy love story, as the "invisible," lip-reading Carla and rough-and-tumble Paul become one in a crafty but unsettlingly messy criminal scheme.

Audiard holds off the climax as long as possible, instead lovingly indulging the contradictory nature of the partnership: she's at least as crafty as him in her plans to lash out against her culture, while he feels the pangs of wanting to rejoin society. Only debts of various kinds can force Paul to return to a life of crime, while Carla finds it erotic until its imposition gives her pause. Devos and Cassel excel at conveying the feigns and feints of this tentativeness as well as their slow-burning attraction and unconventional courtship.

More perversely comic noir than Hitchcockian thriller (as enthusiastic critics have rushed to brand it), Read My Lips does slip a bit when it returns to conventional plotting; Audiard tries to mitigate the genre convention of the ending by resolving a subplot which--though it intellectually bridges the film's two worlds--swirls awkwardly (and unnecessarily) through the picture. But even in stumbling, Audiard gets where he's going, obliterating the wall between corrupt business practice and the criminal lifestyle (with its "associates," "jobs," and "business" to take care of). American audiences may find this salacious honesty particularly timely.

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