Read My Lips (2001): Bringing Out the Best and the Badass in Each Other
Read My Lips (2001) Essay: In a deliberately obscure scene, the woman Carla routinely goes in front of the mirror and undresses. Audiard wants us, the viewers, to make sense of her secret personal rendezvous based on the information provided and the context. He never loses sight of the internal upheavals experienced by his characters which shape their respective journey. A sexual undercurrent runs through the entire movie, but it always simmers beneath the surface. It never makes itself obvious but is always present discreetly in the background. Like a time bomb ticking away underneath the table, ready to explode at a moment’s notice.
Carla is an overworked secretary working at a construction company. Her work gets mostly sidelined by the imposing male figures dominating the office space. She has to run errands for her boss while her coworkers sit and mock her behind her back. When she faints while collecting some papers for her boss, he orders her to hire an assistant. Here comes Paul, an ex-convict, unfit for this or any kind of “straight” job for that matter. To his surprise, he is hired by Carla, as his skills in the robbery come in handy to reclaim her work status. Paul later learns that she is partially hearing impaired and understands words through lip-reading. He has got another plan in his mind to put her talent to use, one which embroils both of them in a web of danger and seduction.
Related to Read My Lips (2001): Irreversible (2002): A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
It is unusual for a film to begin with sounds instead of visuals. But Audiard takes this peculiar step which works as we can listen to the world through Carla’s ears. Her place is compact, constricted, and cramped, both at the office and at home. The compositions make sure we feel her debilitating stress through isolated framing and tight close-ups. She has a friend, for whom she babysits, interested more in blabbering about her sexless marriage and affairs than listening to Carla’s ordeals. Frustration and exhaustion drip from every pore on her skin, weariness palpable in her eyes. She has kept her lip-reading abilities and her hearing problems a secret from her coworkers. Their constant insults reinforce our impressions of her defensive, timid appearance.
She finds her release in some sort of psycho-sexual observation of her own body. At nights, she leisurely disrobes while Audiard keeps her head out of frame, giving a voyeuristic edge to her private pleasures. So, when she hires Paul, her decision stems not only from the advantages of having a mischievous crook at your disposal. But, he also acts as a vessel for her unfurnished, deeply buried longings. Those which even she does not realize she craves up until the climax.
Their vulnerabilities make them susceptible to falling for each other’s charms. Although they start as professional partners, the underlying stream of passion is undeniable (including a botched attempt by Paul to force Carla as he misread her intentions to hire him). They slowly and steadily form a cherished friendship, always staying just an inch away from each other. Audiard uses her auditory changes, incorporated through fantastic sound design, to place us in her shoes. Their momentary brushes up against each other (mostly framed together in med-close-ups) create more erotic tension than your average Hollywood stuff. Audiard, like Wong Kar Wai, understands that true mastery lies in teasing the possibilities by sustaining that grip for the entire runtime. And not indulge in short bursts of thrusts and moans every time the fated lovers appear on the screen.
They unknowingly unearth parts of their personalities that even they did not know existed. She agrees to lip-read the gangsters talking at their meetings in exchange for his services at her office. They implicitly get connected through an invisible thread that bounds them for good or bad. A deal that seals their fate, turning them into partners in crime. Jealousy creeps into their temporary abode forming cracks and fissures. She discovers that he plans to run off with her money breaking her heart. He realizes she is far more cunning and sly than she shows. They become a tag team of reckless, feckless tangential lines that could only meet at curves.
She tracks the stash of money hidden in the fridge while he gets captured by the goons who want their money back. This forces them to plan a desperate attempt to evade the gangsters and run with the money. Paul brings out the badass in her while she makes him change his mind about running away alone. They pull off a nearly impossible escape which takes a bit of head-scratching but never seems ridiculous. The gritty, greyish-brown color palette makes sure that we are engaged in the seedy underbelly of crime and the drudgery of the corporate world in equal measure. It excels in carving out the psychology and revealing their true selves to each other through the expulsion of suppressed temptations.
The background score is used sporadically, only to emphasize the slow-burning flames of passion at certain points in the movie. It swells to an encore in the climactic love-making in the car, where all their conflicting feelings regarding each other also reach a crescendo. They let go of all that had been holding them back, gradually dissipating into the air like smoke. The facade can no longer sustain itself as it has been spotted and demolished. What remains to happen of their incandescent, glimmering lightbulb of romance is uncertain, but the path they took to reach it was worth witnessing, however, muddled it may be.