Friday, July 26, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Muffled, indistinct sounds speak volumes in visually vivid, stylish thriller 'Read My Lips'

Seattle Times movie critic

"Read My Lips" ("Sur Mes Lvres")

With Vincent Cassel, Emmanuelle Devos, Olivier Gourmet, Olivier Perrier, Olivia Bonamy. Directed by Jacques Audiard, from a screenplay by Audiard and Tonino Benacquista. 115 minutes. Not rated; suitable for mature audiences (contains brief nudity). In French with English subtitles. Uptown.

Carla Bhem (Emmanuelle Devos), a secretary in a busy but grim property-development office, is so invisible that when she suddenly faints one day on her way into the boss's office, co-workers don't even glance her way. Dressed in mousy cardigans and sensible skirts, with pinned-back hair and dark circles under her eyes, she answers an ever-ringing jangle of phones and wearily tolerates empty coffee cups left on her desk. But at times, Carla can turn the world off — by flicking a switch on her hearing aids, the clatter of the office becomes near-silent.

"Read My Lips," French director Jacques Audiard's tricky and often captivating thriller, introduces a jolt into Carla's life and doesn't let up until she — and the film itself — are completely transformed. What begins as a dark office comedy gradually becomes a jittery, fast-moving crime drama, until we've left the workplace (and Carla's earlier self) entirely behind. It's an odd Pygmalion of a story, with Carla the good girl as student and the mysterious jailbird Paul (Vincent Cassel) as teacher.

Told that she may hire an assistant, Carla wistfully tells the employment office that she'd prefer a male, around 25, with good looks and nice hands. What she gets is Paul, a greasy-haired former thief who nonetheless fixes his furtive eyes on Carla. Soon, she's finding him a place to live, lying for him to his parole officer and caught up in a heist involving a nightclub owner and a bag of money.

Audiard tells the story through Carla's point of view. We hear the scratchy click of her hearing aid, and experience the ambient sounds as she would — muffled and indistinct. Conversely, the camerawork is speedy, quick-cut and precise. (Carla may not hear all, but she sees very, very well.) And the look of the film gradually changes along with its mood — colors seem muddy at the office, but more vivid in the real world.

"Read My Lips" is a love story that's almost without love scenes, a character-based tale in which no one is fully sympathetic, and a fresh, stylish take on the thriller genre. Be careful, it's telling us: Sounds may be closer than they appear.

Moira Macdonald: or 206-464-2725.


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