Emmanuelle Devos plays the woman, Carla Behm, a smart secretary at a French real estate firm, and Vincent Cassel plays Paul Angeli, a rough ex-con 10 years her junior whom Carla hires as her assistant. From their first moments together, there's a jarring sense of wrongness. Overworked and dumped on by her fellow employees, perhaps because of her frumpy looks and hearing impairment, Carla conceals a tigress inside. She hires the wild, scruffy Paul despite the fact that he knows nothing about faxes, computers or real estate and lies on almost every question in their first interview.
More and more, they begin to seem complementary. She's intelligent but awkward. He's unfettered but tough. She can use his fists and psychopathic temperament, and because of her partial deafness, Carla has a talent that Paul can employ well. She can read lips -- including Marchand's as he talks deals in his apartment with his crooked cronies.
"Read My Lips" won 2002 French Oscars (or "Cesars") for Audiard's script and Devos' performance. Devos' win is even more impressive when you consider her competition: Isabelle Huppert in "The Piano Teacher," Charlotte Rampling" in "Under the Sand" and Audrey Tautou in "Amelie." Audiard's script is as clever as the best noir scripts of the Billy Wilders or the Ben Hechts. It's about love and crime and a descent into a hell that may really be paradise. (Just as with the nature of the central relationship, we're never sure until the last minute.) Meanwhile, Audiard keeps shifting direction and playing with emotions as he examines the link between Paul and Carla with crystalline focus and deadly accuracy.
The actors come from movie worlds as different as their characters'. Cassel is a mainstay in the modern crime films of Matthieu Kassovitz ("Hate"), and Devos is a luminary in the Woody Allenesque intellectual comedies of Arnaud Desplechin ("My Sex Life ?"). And Gourmet, a regular in the films of Belgium's great social naturalists, the Dardenne Brothers, just won the Cannes acting grand prize for his role as the bereaved dad in the Dardennes' "The Son." But they all blend perfectly here; the very difference in their styles makes for exhilarating collisions.
"Read My Lips" is a real drama of character and conflict, and though Audiard (a Cannes winner himself for the script of his last film, 1995's "A Self-made Hero") skates on the edge of melodrama in the second half, he always keeps skimming over the thin spots. The relationships are real and vivid. Cassel is moody and simmering. Gourmet suggests a chubby businessman derailed into crime. And Devos is fabulous. She draws us right into Carla's pathological inner world, as easily as the picture's sound men and editors draw us into her deafness and isolation. This is a finely written, superbly acted offbeat thriller -- a classic noir in the tradition of Henri-Georges Clouzot ("Diabolique") or Julien Duvivier ("Panique") -- with a surface as bleak and modern as the sterile offices and dirty underworld of Paris 2002.
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
"Read My Lips"
Directed by Jacques Audiard; written by Audiard, Tonino Benacquista; photographed by Matthieu Valdepied; edited by Juliette Welfing; sets designed by Michel Barthelemey; music by Alexandre Desplat; produced by Jean-Louis Livi, Phillippe Carcassonne. In French; English subtitled. A Magnolia Pictures release; opens Friday at Pipers Alley and CineArts 6 in Evanston. Running time: 1:55. No MPAA rating (adult: violence, sensuality, language).
Paul Angeli -- Vincent Cassel
Carla Bhem -- Emmanuelle Devos
Marchand -- Olivier Gourmet
Masson -- Olivier Perrier
Annie -- Olivia Bonamy Morel -- Bernard Alane
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.