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Opposites attract in office thriller Read My Lips

Shielded behind her desk, Carla Behm, the protagonist of Read My Lips, looks like one of those people you instinctively avoid. Emmanuelle Devos plays Carla as the kind of silent, seething nobody you notice in the office or at the store, the one who seems consumed with a private rage, waiting for the smallest pretext to explode. Carla's very real grievances and how she strikes against them propel the audience into the intriguing French film Read My Lips. Director and co-writer Jacques Audiard begins Read My Lips as a barbed and moody corporate drama, then gradually transforms it into a crime story that's well-crafted and satisfying, but not as refreshingly original as the film's first half.

The title comes from Carla's hearing impairment. She was born deaf but can now hear more or less normally with the help of mechanical aids. Although she's a fully capable worker, she's stuck in secretarial duties at a dispiriting property development company where her bullying male co-workers block her attempts at more lucrative advancement and thoughtlessly clutter her desk with coffee cups.

After a panic attack causes a fainting spell, Carla is offered an assistant to lighten her workload, and she amusingly treats human resources as a kind of dating service, asking for "a male ... with nice hands." She doesn't count on getting Paul Angeli (Vincent Cassel), a disreputable-looking younger man with sparse facial hairs and eyes seemingly set too far apart. Paul transparently claims to have office experience but eventually reveals that he's been recently released from prison.

Carla nevertheless hires him, motivated by equal measures of sympathy, power and loneliness. When she discovers that Paul has been sleeping in one of the office storerooms, she finds him a place to live in one of the company properties. Paul misinterprets her motives -- or maybe knows them better than Carla does herself -- and makes an aggressive pass at her, which she angrily rebuffs.

Their tense, platonic relationship takes a dangerous turn when Carla convinces Paul to use his skills at larceny and intimidation to undermine the office jerks and advance Carla's corporate standing. He in effect becomes her id, bringing her angriest impulses to reality, while she helps him clean up his act. It's an opposites-attract dynamic that turns up in love stories, screwball comedies and film noir. Read My Lips draws on elements of each, but mostly film noir.

Carla reveals to Paul her talent for reading lips and how she can "hear" every word of cruel cafeteria gossip. When a former gangster associate (Olivier Gourmet) insists that Paul work off an old debt, Paul comes up with a scheme to exploit Carla's lip-reading ability to pull off an insanely risky heist.

In the film's second half, the twisty corporate stuff almost completely gives way to a more conventional scheme to rip off some hoodlums. It emphasizes plot mechanics more than it provides insight into the characters or cutthroat corporate life. But beneath the suspense is a lower level of tension as to whether Carla will ever drop her defense and find intimacy with Paul.

Director Audiard is an expert at point of view. Muffled sound, tight close-ups and scenes shot from a distance convey Carla's limited perspective when her hearing aids are removed. Audiard co-wrote the 1988 cult film Baxter, the darkest of comedies in which the audience is privy to the thoughts of a vicious, conniving pit bull. As in that film, Read My Lips ingeniously shows the world through the eyes -- and ears -- of an outsider.

In fact, Audiard's flair for getting so close to his leads seems to render him less graceful at bringing other characters into the mix. A sporadic subplot involving Paul's parole officer (Olivier Perrier), who's lost track of his wife, is meant as a counterpoint about the risks of relationships, but it has a tenuous connection to the rest of the film. When Paul starts tending bar at the gangster's nightclub, numerous plot points are introduced merely for further use later on.

Read My Lips builds tension with logic and suspense, just as Devos and Cassel find rich details in their characters. And the film indicates that there's more to French culture than the stereotypes of art and food. Like the 2001 farce The Closet and this year's icy character study Time Out (which may never get an Atlanta release), Read My Lips shows that the French appreciate the casual cruelties and simmering emotions at the office.

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