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Dieter Dengler’s story is awe-inspiring. Though we’re prone to exaggerate, the phrase is absolutely bang on in this case. The narrative evokes a mix of wonder and horror: amazement at his strength, terror at what humanity – and fate – can do. It’s one of the most subtly affecting films I’ve ever seen: there were no tears at the end but it may have changed how I see the world.

As for Herzog’s craft, there are two decisions which I think are particularly interesting. The first is his method of presentation: flying to Vietnam, he gets Dieter to recreate moments from his ordeal. In the jungle, it produces a gesture that is haunting because it cannot help but reveal a certain vulnerability. As the elderly man runs with hands tied and guards in front and behind, we see him, after a few metres, stop and glance back over his right shoulder at the camera. Usually armed with a staggeringly upbeat and forgiving mood, it seems that fear and uneasiness fill his head at that moment. Perhaps he worries that it’s all a dream and that he’s woken up back in the jungle.

The second is the reference to Dieter’s fiancée. She is a domestic detail that is only hinted at – mentioned once and never picked up again. Dieter talks about her briefly and Herzog does not question him. Rather than made clear, her absence is marked simply by the silence that surrounds her in the rest of the picture and we’re left to wonder what happened to her. A bit like the sub-plot involving the social worker in Read My Lips (2001), the mention of the fiancée poses more questions than it answers.

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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.

The Beat That My Heart Skipped (2005) is the second film I’ve seen by Jacques Audiard. I’ve also watched his later effort A Prophet (2009), which is quite simply outstanding. While the two films deal with similar sorts of criminal violence, the director’s remake of James Toback’s Fingers (1978) should be seen as more than just a prelude to A Prophet: it’s a terrific picture in its own right, a complex character study of the piano playing real estate broker Thomas Seyr (Romain Duris) which uses sound in sophisticated ways.

Tom’s love of music is handled with a delicacy that throws it into relief against the darker day-to-day tasks of his job. We see him struggle to balance the growing desire for something better (set in motion by the prospect of a successful audition) with the often violent demands of his job and his aging father, who seeks retribution against a Russian mobster. The same hands that carry a bag of rats or punch a squatter in the face also stroke the piano keys late at night and caress Aline (Aure Atika), his associate’s wife, in a stolen moment. His hands become a familiar and important image as they are often the focus of the frame. Sometimes they’re cut and occasionally they’re bleeding but most often they wriggle, frustrated, playing imaginary notes on an imaginary piano.

The tension between Tom’s life and his wishes is expressed through the music itself, principally in the modulation of Bach’s Toccata in E minor. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) comes to mind after hearing the opening section a few times: Bach’s piece becomes for Tom, like the titular conversation for Harry (Gene Hackman), not only a cause of his anger or happiness, but also an indicator of his mood. We’re reminded that directors can use mimetic music (sound in the filmic reality) to reveal, as well as influence, the psychological states of the characters. It is clear, though, that the role of such music is difficult to pinpoint when it functions both digetically and mimetically. Nonetheless, in the beginning, we hear Tom trip repeatedly over the opening few bars, trying excitedly to play the piece. While he does get better, we notice, along with his tutor Miao Lin (Linh Dan Pham), that his rhythm is out: he rushes through the notes and get frustrated, shouting, slamming his fists and stomping his feet. Eventually, he plays confidently and feels ready to make his dream a reality. So, then, it’s a sad disappointment when the nerves of real life overpower his fingers in the audition and he fails to get past those opening bars. Frustrated and embarrassed, he quickly leaves the room and, with space to breathe outside, puts on his headphones.

This moment is only one example of a general pattern in which other forms of music interrupt the key piece. The Bach in Tom’s head is repeatedly challenged by the bass of electronica or the voice of Kele (fronting Bloc Party) that spills from his mp3 player. The device, which he uses earlier in the film in an attempt to block out the world, confining his ears and confirming his passion, at this climactic moment of failure becomes a way of forgetting, rather than solidifying, his personal musical desires. We see with hindsight, though, that his headphones do not act as a barrier to the world at all: instead they help Tom to streamline himself against the demands of his job and his society. The rhythm of his life – the interaction between his classical dreams and his contemporary reality – is revealed in the orchestration of the music.

On the note of pianos, here’s a fun article about mad pianists and here’s Bach’s piece being performed by Clara Haskil: