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With: Emmanuelle Devos, Vincent Cassel, Olivier Gourmet, Olivier Perrier, Olivia Bonamy, Bernard Alane
Written by: Jacques Audiard, Tonino Benacquista
Directed by: Jacques Audiard
MPAA Rating: R for language, violence and some sexual content
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 115
Date: 09/10/2001

Read My Lips (2002)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Lips' Nervous

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I've earned a reputation as a reviewer who will not tolerate disease-of-the-week flicks that use diseased or disabled people as a vehicle to prove something about nobility and greatness. Many critics fall for this kind of stuff time and again, ensuring that awful films like Rain Man, Forrest Gump and A Beautiful Mind steal the awards from genuinely artistic works.

But Read My Lips, which opens today at the Galaxy, is appealingly different. It features a deaf character whose deafness isn't a gimmick that will prove how much the filmmakers care or that they're great humanitarians. Her deafness is featured the way the color of her dress or her hairstyle might be featured. Of course, it's a character trait, but it's only one part of her, not the end-all, be-all.

The film opens with Carla (Emmanuelle Devos), a receptionist and a Jill-of-all-trades for a property development company. Aside from constantly answering the phone, she knows the ins and outs of the company and works like a dog doing most of the grunt work for her higher-paid, more respected co-workers. To rub it in, her desk is situated so that it becomes a catch-all for discarded and half-drunk coffee cups (some of which spill all over her papers).

Part of the problem is that Carla is partially deaf, though she can function normally with hearing aids. Because she reads lips, she knows her co-workers make fun of her behind her back. (Though she's fairly attractive, she carries herself in a shy, frumpish manner.)

After a fainting spell, Carla's boss allows her to hire some help. She asks the employment agency for someone well-groomed and nice-looking, but she gets a greasy ex-con named Paul (Vincent Cassel, from Brotherhood of the Wolf, The Crimson Rivers and Birthday Girl).

The two form a kind of bond, though not romantic at first. Paul allows the more vindictive side of Carla to come out, and Carla seems to have a kind of soothing effect on Paul, who seems to want to go straight this time.

Unfortunately, Paul has an outstanding debt dating from before his prison term, and he has to work double-time as a bartender in a mobster's club. He cooks up a plan that depends on Carla's help to raise the money faster.

Directed by Jacques Audiard, the talented writer behind disparate material such as Venus Beauty Institute and Baxter, the film has strangely hypnotic effect. Though it doesn't use overt cinematic tricks to suck you in, I found myself inside the movie without ever being aware of it. It's as if we're watching the story unfold through a window, never noticing we've fogged up the glass.

Though Read My Lips can be classified as a "thriller," it doesn't rely on adrenaline bursts or twisty puzzles. It helps that our two main characters are beautifully drawn and endlessly fascinating --not to mention, there are extraordinary performances by Devos (she won the French Cesar Award for Best Actress) and the ever-creepy Cassel.

It also helps that the movie never falls into the predictable "opposites attract" romantic pattern.

Finally, the deafness factor comes into play minimally. Though I knew it was possible, I can't tell you how refreshing it feels to finally see it on film. In fact, Read My Lips is so subtle, it didn't even occur to me that the film deftly avoided the "disease-of-the-week" whitewash until long after it was over.

If you want to be swept away by a truly engaging thriller this summer, Read My Lips is it.

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