French iconoclast Jacques Audiard skillfully bends some established genres in “Read My Lips,” an offbeat romance-cum-film noir between a half-deaf wallflower and a down-at-the-heels thief. Drawing engaging chemistry between leads Emmanuelle Devos and Vincent Cassel, Audiard — a noted scripter and occasional director (“See How They Fall,” “A Self-Made Hero”) — has come up with an item that’s difficult to position but could attract upscale viewers on the back of good notices.
Playing with the soundtrack as Carla (Devos) — a put-upon secretary in a property development company — turns on and off her two hearing aids, pic draws the viewer with almost Hitchcockian manipulation into the young woman’s world. In the mood for love, but more often reduced to baby-sitting for a sexually active friend (Olivia Bonamy), Carla finally meets Paul (Cassel), a rough type on parole.
Playing against the film’s smooth but unstylized look, Alexandre Desplat’s gentle, chordal music reflects the inner longing behind Carla’s down-turned mouth and so-so looks. There’s an especially chilling moment when she gets her revenge on an arrogant colleague, Keller (Pierre Diot), by arranging for Paul to purloin a company file: In a tight close-up, underscored by Desplat’s spiritual strains, she closes her eyes triumphantly as Keller receives his comeuppance.
Hereon, pic turns increasingly noirish as Carla and Paul team up to defraud Marchand (Olivier Gourmet), a violent club owner who’s had Paul beaten up for an outstanding 70,000 franc ($10,000) debt. The scam — in which Carla helps by staying close to Paul — involves her skill at reading lips.
Audiard juggles the movie’s elements with precise skill: Moments when Carla retreats into her silent world by turning off her hearing aids, moments of intimacy in sudden close-ups and moments of raw violence or tension as plans threaten to go haywire. Underlining the pic’s off-center feel is a subsidiary story of Paul’s parole officer (Olivier Perrier) who, like Carla herself, is more than he first appears. Neat ending ties in the movie’s title with him and Carla.
Devos, a regular in Arnaud Desplechin’s films and a memorable co-lead in Sophie Fillieres’ weird comedy “Ouch” (2000), is just perfect as the thirtysomething Carla with a private sense of her own worth. Cassel, an actor with whom it’s often difficult to empathize, clicks here as the no-good heel Paul. Other casting is also spot on.