Film noir is a genre generally dating from mid-twentieth century Hollywood, films about crime and passion and evil-doing whose characters (good and bad) are suffused with cynicism. There’s a Gothic quality to the look of these films–theatrical, strongly contrasted lighting, dingy interiors, nighttime more than day–and an air of decay, of corruption and violence lurking in the shadows. The Maltese Falcon is an example of quality within the genre as are The Big Heat and Double Indemnity. Noir remains in constant play, not only in American movies (L.A. Confidential, The Man Who Wasn’t There) but in foreign films as well; the French seem particularly drawn to it (Breathless, Rififi).
Audiences respond to these films because, like horror films and science fiction, it gives them a walk on the wild side without leaving the comfort and security of their seats in the theater. In the anything-goes, nothing-to-lose world of noir there is, perhaps, a release for ordinary folks whose lives of petty transgressions pale next to the disillusioned amorality of noir.
Read My Lips, from director Jacques Audiard (A Self-Made Hero), starts without a particularly noir tone, but one of its strategies is to build a crescendo ofobliquity. By the time it’s over, it’s as black as coal on a moonless night.
What particularly distinguishes Read My Lips (and there’s a lot to admire here) is its depth of motivation and character development, particularly in its main character, Carla Bhem (Emmanuelle Devos). Carla, even with a hearing aid, is near deafand she’s ordinary looking as well. She works as a secretary in a construction firm where her more menial tasks are occasionally leavened with some management responsibilities. She has the experience and skill for the latter, but is held down by manipulative actions of the (all male) project managers who snigger about her when they think she can’t hear them. What they don’t know is that she can read lips. Audiard uses the sound track from time to time to project the audience into Carla’s auditory position–water running in a scene, for example, but no sound of it on the soundtrack. He also wryly shows the advantages–turn off the hearing aid around crying babies and in loud discos.
Carla also listens to her girlfriend rhapsodize about her sexual escapades which heightens her unfulfilled needs, both physical and emotional. Audiard takes his time building the circumstances of Carla’s life, establishing the texture of her neediness, aided immeasurably by Devos’ subtle performance. She gets under the skin of Carla; her reaction to each unfolding event seems psychologically consistent and rings true. So the audience has been prepared when the boss authorizes her to hire an assistant and she hires Paul (Vincent Cassel), an utterly inappropriate just-paroled ex-con. He’s a liar, he can’t type, he’s scroungy, but he generates steamy sexual heat.
From there, their lives start to intertwine and the malfeasance begins in earnest–she in response to the double-dealers at her job, he in response to an ever deeper involvement with a mobster to whom he is debt. She also repudiates his initial and crude sexual advance, not from lack of wanting, but for wanting it right. Carla knows all too well what it is like to be treated as an object.
There are subplots both on the office side and on the mob side, but they are all firmly connected to the film’s theme, adding to motivation and to this bleak landscape of unprincipled selfishness, Audiard (who also co-wrote the screenplay) doesn’t waste a frame; each has something to add to the total picture and each scene stops when it has accomplished its purpose, unusual discipline in this era of director’s bloat.
Read My Lips raises the question: when they’re all bad guys, who are you gonna root for? There’s no one to root for here, but the development of the relationship between Carla and Paul is wonderfully complex and revealing. They’re a little too dark to be Robin Hoods, though their victims all deserve what they get. More aptly, they’re a Bonnie and Clyde for an existential age. For all that they get sucked up into a whorl of crookedness and violence, Paul gives Carla something that no one else has–trust and respect for her ability to accomplish a job. Working together under pressure, she is established (in his eyes and her own) as a real person, a person of value, and they become a team. From the sewer of criminality, an orchid of romance blooms.