A friend recommended Audiard’s Read My Lips (2001) to me almost a year ago. For a while, I struggled to get hold of a copy and, having seen A Prophet (2009), I watched The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) and A Self-Made Hero (1996) instead. Now though, finally, I’ve seen the picture. It seems to mark the beginning of a move in Audiard’s canon towards an idiosyncratic shooting style, a development perhaps continued in his later films by the use of cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine for both The Beat That My Heart Skipped and A Prophet.
At the same time, visual echoes key the film into earlier cinematic traditions, as Hollywood is both invoked and reacted against. In its first few scenes, Read My Lips presents a lonely protagonist and establishes a situation familiar to a romantic comedy. The opening series of close ups, showing Carla (Emmanuelle Devos) fitting her hearing aids and washing her mouth with water, root us to the secretary’s sensory perception. Yet in the tedious everyday surroundings of her workplace, we see her socially separated and sensorily sealed-off – despite her aids, unable to interact. Tight framing, often claustrophobically filled with coworkers that ignore her, reinforces that she is alone.
There’s a gesture in this opening section which is reminiscent of an earlier work from Hollywood – Howard Hawk’s Bringing Up Baby (1938). As Carla returns to her desk after completing a task, she sits on some spilt coffee which has been (accidentally?) left on her seat. When called again into her boss’s office, panicked, as well as upset, she tries to cover the stain on her skirt. Devos moves her hand and herself in such a way that the gesture and the particulars of the framing bring to mind Katharine Hepburn’s ripped dress in Bringing Up Baby.
Read My Lips both invokes the earlier Golden Age comedy – chiefly through similarities of gesture – and distances itself from it. The different means used by Devos and Hepburn to resolve their parallel problems construct two distinct social contexts. While Hepburn must fill an absence (a large hole in a ripped dress) with Carey Grant, Devos seeks to hide an unexpected and unwanted addition (a coffee stain) simply with her own body. While Hepburn and Grant are left to stroll hilariously through the convivial setting of a bar and restaurant, Devos must walk unnaturally through her place of work, avoiding the harsh gazes of her coworkers.
So Bringing Up Baby‘s social situation is hinted at before quickly being recast in a minor key. As Grant’s parallel in Read My Lips is not an archaeologist but a criminal, the divergence between Audiard’s picture and a comic Hollywood hinterland only gets greater as the film progresses. In fact, by casting Vincent Cassel (who plays a skinhead hoodlum in Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995)) as Paul, Audiard gives Read My Lips an iconically French cinematic face. Furthermore, the entrance of Paul in the picture begins to usher in a shift in genre, as the criminal world of La Haine starts to pervade the (albeit already slightly more tragically presented) situation of domestic loneliness.
Carla stands as a bridge between the two worlds, as the film blends the generic expectations of a thriller with a relationship drama. So, having dressed herself for a night out in the club in which Paul works, Carla becomes enmeshed not in a lighthearted fling but trapped in the threat of rape. The situation (which Paul rescues her from) reinforces the violence of his criminal past and its inescapable contiguity with the present situation. Earlier, when Paul tries to jump Carla, attempting to repay a flat and an advance on his wages with sex, it’s clear that he also struggles to adapt from one mode to the next. For him, sex – like keys or cash – is something simply to use and to exchange.
Despite what is, in some senses, an excellently neat resolution of the criminal and emotional elements through Carla’s deafness, Audiard’s script (written with Tonino Benacquista) refuses to settle entirely. The picture’s haunted by a sub-plot involving Paul’s parole officer Masson (Olivier Perrier). Only given a few fleeting moments, this story is revealed almost in a series of set pieces: in one scene, for example, Masson sits drunk with opera loudly leaking from his headphones; later, he covers his head with a bag and screams; finally, as Carla and Paul drive away, we’re given a glimpse of him being arrested by the police. Carla reveals, reading his lips, that he says he loved her, though whether he killed her is left uncertain.