At first glance, the evidence tying Hitchcock to Jacques Audiard’s Read My Lips seems purely circumstantial. Past the film’s obvious engagement of Rear Window, though, lies a fascinating power struggle between an ex-con and a deaf woman not unlike Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant’s achy breaky Notorious tug-of-war. Frumpy secretary Carla (Emmanuelle Devos) gets a little help around the office from ex-con Paul (Vincent Cassel). Both seem conscious of their need for each other in that Paul recognizes her loneliness and Carla takes comfort in trying to make him go straight. Their fascinating interdependence gives way to a power struggle built on unspoken trust and a series of daring demands. Carla willingly shuts herself out from the rest of world by removing her hearing aides. Indeed, she seems more comfortable in silence; an expert lip-reader, she can decode the world around her (a co-worker’s petty condemnations, a crook’s master plan).
Audiard is as aware of the absurdity of a secretary needing an assistant as Carla is of her lack of social graces. In turn, Carla never thinks herself better than Paul though both seem overly conscious of how they can exploit each other’s “talents” to overcome personal dilemmas. Just as mysterious as the nature of Carla’s detachment from the world is the film’s own resistance to genre classification; if the passive-aggressive Carla refuses to ever be seen as a victim, the film itself refuses to ever be taken purely as awkward office comedy, romantic drama or suspense thriller. Carla uses Paul to beat up a co-worker and fears that her newly gained power in the workplace will be compromised as soon as he leaves for a full-time job as a bartender. Paul uses Carla to decipher a scheme being planned by his employer Marchand (Olivier Gourmet). That he doesn’t ask her permission to borrow her lips is indicative of the expected demands of their unspoken business relationship. “I’m not your fax machine,” she says, perhaps suggesting that his demands are best served with some affection.
Devos won this year’s César Award for Best Actress for her performance in the film, beating out such heavy-hitters as Audrey Tautou (Amélie), Isabelle Huppert (The Piano Teacher) and Charlotte Rampling (Under the Sand). There’s a haunting, near effortless texture to her performance. Devos shoos away a deaf man begging for money, evoking the character’s discomfort for her disability. Audiard situates a naked Devos before a full-length bedroom mirror a few times throughout the film; though she is only shown from the neck down, Devos’s awkward stance suggests she is as distanced from her body as she is from everything else in the world. Of course, Audiard’s concern for such detail work deserves equal respect, as does the subtle means by which the actress and director beautify Carla only to then remind her of her false empowerment.
The film’s logistical failures as a suspense thriller say less about Audiard’s neo-noir capabilities than they do about the film’s success as character drama. If Hitchcock was keen on letting the spectator know more than his characters, Audiard takes a more realistic approach by never letting the audience see, hear or know more than Carla and Paul. The director evokes Carla’s limited hearing and frequently obscured gaze via unflashy manipulations of the film’s soundtrack and careful placement of his camera. Nonetheless, a seemingly uncertain Audiard cheapens the suspense he so painstakingly fashions through a series of sloppy edits during a scene where Carla and Paul infiltrate Marchand’s office. More lethal, though, is a superfluous subplot involving Paul’s parole officer, Masson (Olivier Perrier), which functions neither as red herring nor as an existential mirror to Carla or Paul’s plights. Still, Audiard deliciously tackles the film’s crucial plot twists; in the end, he seemingly suggests that everything that precedes the film’s last scene represents the necessary courtship to Carla and Paul’s final consummation.