22 September 2002 | mpofarrell
Hitchcock With The Gloves Off
French film directors continue to amaze with their extraordinary ability to simulate the sights and sounds of ordinary, everyday suburban life. This was readily apparent with the release early in 2002 of L'Emploi du temps ( Time Out ) , a brilliant character study of of a white collar worker's descent into melancholy after having been fired from his job. As is the penchant of French filmmakers , many scenes were shot on real streets and in public places, giving a cinema verite feel to the story , yet L'Emploi du temps also possessed an elegant look thanks to excellent camera work and some stunning location footage ( most notably a Swiss mountain retreat ). Running fairly on the heels of that masterful movie comes another impressive French production, Jacques Audiard's gritty crime caper, Sur mes levres ( Read My Lips ). Actually, to tag this film a crime caper does it a disservice because it is so much more than that. As with the earlier French release, it is an incisive character study of marginal people using their wits to get ahead in a society that has turned its back on them. In a Paris construction firm Carla, a shy, diminutive young woman sits at her desk, sequestered to an area of the office that is a major pathway to the xerox machines and restrooms.
Obnoxious coworkers use the front of Carla's desk to chat and drop off their half-finished Styrofoam cups of coffee. Partially deaf, Carla turns her hearing aids on and off at will if noise becomes bothersome, be it the drone of the paper copiers or the shrill crying of a friend's baby. When her boss calls her into the office to suggest that she hire a secretarial assistant to help her with the work load, Carla fears she may lose her job. At the employment office Carla lists the specifications she wants for her assistant (preferably male) as if she were at a Personals Agency. He should be 25 years old and clean -cut , with extensive computer and filing skills. When the agency sends over an unkempt , menacing looking young man, Carla is both shocked and intrigued. They leave the office and have lunch at a local eatery, where Carla interviews her prospective assistant. When she finds out that he has just gotten out of prison , Carla initially wants nothing to do with Paul, but has a change of heart and hires him on. Although she is basically kind toward her helper, Carla now finds herself in a position of authority and possessing a newfound sense of power. Paul learns quickly and becomes an able worker. Carla helps Paul find a temporary place to live and even covers for him when his parole officer shows up one day at the office wondering why Paul missed his appointment. During one of their lunch breaks Carla informs Paul of her hearing deficiency and reveals her ability to read lips. Later, when an avaricious coworker blatantly takes over a project Carla has been working on, a furious Carla asks Paul's help in seeking revenge on the man. From here on in Sur mes levres becomes an increasingly intense crime drama escalating into some of the most violently graphic scenes that have been shown on the screen in recent years. The screenplay borrows elements from Hitchcock, most notably REAR WINDOW, where Carla's lip-reading talent comes into full play using a pair of binoculars. There is a teasing, on-again, off-again sexual attraction between the two protagonists that culminates in a rather strange homage to NORTH BY NORTHWEST, but it works because of the considerable sexual heat that builds slowly between the two stars. That being said, what one carries away from this movie isn't so much the similarities to classic Hitchcock thrillers, although those elements are definitely there, but the pervasive view a of a modern day city (in this case Paris) where life runs the gamut from mundane workdays to a boozy, garish nightlife where sex, drugs and laundered money infiltrate the lives of several characters. Unlike Hollywood productions, this is a psychological suspense yarn where the people look like the everyday man and woman on the street, where a punch in the face or groin sounds like a sickening thud and where the office is a place to be feared. It's Hitchcock with the gloves off.