Odd Couplings

The matched-up misfits of Read My Lips and Warm Water Under a Red Bridge

In another life, Carla Bhem (Emmanuelle Devos), an underappreciated French secretary in her mid-30s who toils at a property-development company, might make a pretty good hussy. Notwithstanding a wardrobe that runs the gamut from baggy brown to baggy gray, her blue-saucer eyes and ripe lower lip suggest untapped sensuality, and even the elementary school barrette jammed into her virgin's hairdo can't quite give the lie to the swing of her silky brown locks. Jacques Audiard, the director of the impudent new black comedy Read My Lips, has every intention of giving Carla another life—and by means of the very skill that, as the movie opens, is the source of her misery. Carla is deaf, and though she uses a hearing aid, she has become an expert lip reader, which allows her to hear her male colleagues' malicious comments when they think she's out of earshot. Devos plays Carla with the slow, anxious watchfulness that clings to the perennially scorned—she wavers between being constantly on the alert for slights and, when she finds them, pretending she doesn't care.

Carla is bitter, frustrated and lonely, but if she inhabits a dark and claustrophobic world, by turns ominously quiet and unbearably loud, Audiard doesn't want us feeling sorry for her. There's a baleful thirst for revenge in Carla and hints of unfulfilled desire in her greedy eavesdropping on a couple nuzzling in a café, in the strappy red shoes she hauls out of her closet at night and in the flashes of her naked body in her bedroom mirror. Instructed by her boss to find an assistant, she sets about advertising the position as if she were placing a personals ad. When the lone candidate, a greasy, leather-jacketed, monosyllabic lug absurdly named Paul Angeli (played by the excellent Vincent Cassel), announces that he's fresh from a spell in jail for aggravated robbery, Carla's face registers first fear, then a dawning sense of possibility. Here, at last, is someone she thinks she can control.

If you're familiar with Audiard's work—A Self-Made Hero, about a son of World War II French collaborators who passes himself off as a resistance fighter, made a splash on the foreign-film circuit in 1998—you'll know better than to expect a solemn story of disability overcome or a cuddly tale of two lovable misfits cozily sheltering from a harsh world. Carla and Paul's relationship is better described as a warped mutual-aid society underpinned by fierce competition to see who can exploit the other most. True, Carla shows Paul how to function in the world of work and installs him in an apartment that's being readied for occupancy; in return, she uses his criminal skills to avenge herself on a noxious co-worker and advance her own prospects at the company. Meanwhile, turned on by Paul's animal physicality, Carla is growing more physical herself, though she hardly knows what to do with her newfound energy. She's smitten by Paul, but when, out of a sense of obligation, he makes a clumsy pass at her, she pushes him away, a nervous spinster stranded between lust and a fear of being taken for granted. What gives the film its bounce is that there's no psychological exposition: Audiard has Godard's love of the visual gesture (not to mention his fascination with the way people's lives are altered by their fantasies), but where Godard uses the visual flourish as an arbitrary interruption, for Audiard, it's a language—a glance down at cleavage here, the ambivalent push of a hand against a knee there—that telegraphs the shifting patterns of attraction and repulsion between two people who are unaccustomed to getting what they need via the spoken word.

Somewhere in the middle of Read My Lips, Paul, who's working off a debt to a former crime boss, hatches a heist, and we abruptly find ourselves in the middle of a gangster picture that pays homage to both Rear Window and Vertigo. Much of the movie's entertaining second half finds Carla on a roof, where, wrapped in a parka and armed with a pair of binoculars, she at last discovers a creative outlet for her special talent. Audiard doesn't really take this anywhere—Read My Lips is a far slighter film than A Self-Made Hero, whose deadpan black humor took some well-deserved slugs (timely, too, given the current antics of Le Pen) at France's selective memory about its collusion with fascism. Still, it shares that movie's mordant appreciation for the amorality that pervades respectable society no less than it does the criminal margins. Carla's firm is up to its neck in graft, and in a bizarre subplot, Paul's probation officer (Olivier Perrier), a man with a kindly, open face, turns out to have a ghastly secret of his own. But then, improbably, Read My Lips escapes the cynicism of much contemporary neo-noir, if only by a hair, by ending as a love story of delightful crackpot idealism, in which Paul has made a crook and a hussy out of Carla, and she has made a gentleman out of him.

More crackpot idealism: In Shohei Imamura's Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, Yosuke (Koji Yakusho, star of 1997's surprise hit Shall We Dance?), a laid-off Tokyo worker armed only with his briefcase and a cell phone, heads for the remote fishing town in rural Japan where, a dying street person has told him, a stolen golden Buddha lies hidden in a house by a red bridge. Finding no one at home but a senile old woman, Yosuke wanders into a supermarket, where he spies on Saeko (Misa Shimizu), a beautiful young woman shoplifting cheese and, apparently, wetting her pants at the same time. When Yosuke follows Saeko home, he discovers that she lives in the house by the bridge with her grandmother (Mitsuko Baisho), who passes her days writing endless horoscopes. Pretty soon, he's eating cheese and having sex with Saeko, who has converted a past trauma into a particularly imaginative form of eros that effectively turns her into a human geyser.

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