Lip-Reading Her Way Through An Ingenious French Thriller

Jacques Audiard’s Read My Lips ( Sur Mes Lèvres ), from a screenplay by Mr. Audiard and Tonino Benacquista, changes genres in midstream to transform a low-voltage love story involving two likable misfits into a high-stakes thriller loaded with fear, passion, courage, suspense and ingenuity. It is just about the best movie I have seen this year, and I dread thinking how the inevitable American remake with Tom Cruise and Penélope Cruz or Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan will manage to mangle its magnificently original concept.

The film opens with a detailed close-up introduction to Carla Bhem (Emmanuelle Devos), a deaf office worker with a hearing aid and an uncanny ability to read lips at great distances. She is employed by a construction company in a vaguely defined half-secretarial, half-managerial position. One day she faints at the office from the strain of cleaning up after her many incompetent superiors. She then accepts her employer’s offer of an assistant she can hire as an intern to help her with her workload.

When Paul Angeli (Vincent Cassel) arrives from the employment office, Carla quickly ascertains that he is an ex-con without office skills and, indeed, with few social graces. Still, he is enough of a hunk for her to shield him from her colleagues. Alone, Carla and Paul are certified losers, but together they make a surprisingly efficient team, first in the office and later in a daring heist from mobsters.

Carla has a curious mix of tactical instincts and shy unassertiveness that leads her to watch life rather than live it. For his part, Paul has been beaten down by society but still has enough sly audacity to organize a revenge against his loan-shark nemesis. Their first successful collaboration results when Carla persuades Paul to steal a file from one of her unscrupulous co-workers. Paul is hesitant because he is on parole and has no desire to go back to prison. He is also a little shocked to discover how close to crime so-called “honest” business activity tends to drift.

When Carla finds a way for Paul to keep working for her while paying off an old debt to a loan shark by working in a mob-owned night club, Paul assumes that she wants to sleep with him, and he is willing to repay her kindness with the only currency at his disposal. When she rebuffs his advances, he is genuinely mystified. What does she want or expect? In this love story without sex until the final fade-out, Paul and Carla have many stormy moments in their relationship, but every time they seem about to part permanently, the next shot finds them doing one another’s bidding.

Mr. Audiard’s previous films, See How They Fall (1994) and A Self-Made Hero (1995), celebrated masculine virtues and vices in the violent worlds of crime and war. Read My Lips combines masculine and feminine in a wildly original fusion of distinctive temperaments and skills. Carla’s “disability,” for example, enables her to cash in, literally, on her compensatory ability to read lips. Paul repeatedly calls her a bitch, and on some levels she is exactly that, but on other levels she is heartbreakingly vulnerable without ever sinking into self-pity. She has learned to live with the fact that she is not a babe.

What I like most about the movie is the absence of any portentous back story for either Carla or Paul. Their characters are forged in the crucible of contingency as they respond to one dangerous challenge after another without the benefit of any prior experience. To watch Carla read lips through binoculars while perched on a cold roof, or Paul hurling ice cubes into whiskey glasses as if he had been bartending all his life, is to be plunged into a physical adventure in which our two protagonists are reborn every moment.

And all around them is a chorus of anger and anguish from the betrayed and the deceived, most memorably the parole officer Masson (Olivier Perrier) with a heart-rending secret he knowingly confides at a distance to Carla’s lip-reading eyes. There are absolutely no caricatures to be seen and comfortably ridiculed.

The delights are in the details. Mr. Audiard and his crew have found so many different ways to illuminate the feelings of their characters that it may take more than one viewing to fully appreciate the subtleties of the sounds and images. Ms. Devos and Mr. Cassel have been in more movies than most American viewers will ever see. Actors believe in the work ethic over there, and the good ones try to vary their personae as much as possible from film to film. As often as I have seen Ms. Devos and Mr. Cassel in the past, I cannot recall ever having been so overwhelmed by their creative intensity. Read My Lips is to be viewed and treasured for its extraordinary intelligence and originality as well as its lyrical variations on the game of love.

Minority Report Sinks Too Low

Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report , from a screenplay by Scott Frank and Jon Cohen, based upon a short story by Phillip K. Dick, plays for most of its running time like a John Ashcroft wet dream, but in the last minutes it chickens out with an American Civil Liberties Union-approved ending full of pardons and second thoughts. Tom Cruise gives one of his most inconsistent and incoherent performances as Chief John Anderton of the elite Department of Pre-Crime in Washington, D.C., circa 2054. Just think of it: Murder has been banished from the nation’s capital because the guilty are punished before their crimes are committed. At one time or another, Anderton is a bereaved father sobbing over his murdered child and a Toscanini of mumbo-jumbo hand gestures summoning future crime to virtual reality and then apprehending and imprisoning the criminals before they have committed the crimes. Then, lest the kids begin yawning during the tediously expository dialogue, Anderton turns into a superspeedy fugitive from justice outrunning, outwitting and outmuscling a horde of Pre-Crime troopers in the silliest chase scenes in movie history.

Colleagues I respect and even admire have written rave reviews for Minority Report . My own minority report is that it stinks, and I would leave it at that if it were not for my embarrassing admiration for Mr. Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence last year. “Embarrassing” only because I’m supposed to be a registered auteurist from way back. It is not that I am particularly disappointed in Mr. Spielberg for making Minority Report . I have been considerably less than enthralled by most of his films over the years, and yet I have always understood why mine was often a minority position on his career. Lately, some critics have been condescendingly describing him as a Kubrick without cojones , which is to overlook Kubrick’s frequent descents into sentimentality and infantilism, however diluted with vinegar. At their best, though not necessarily most popular, both directors-Kubrick with The Shining (1980) and the first part of Full Metal Jacket (1987), Mr. Spielberg with Empire of the Sun (1987) and A.I. (2001)-have displayed an ability to confound their juvenile constituency with an expression of psychological maturity.

By contrast, Minority Report sinks to the level of pornographically violent video games such as Grand Theft Auto, with some ghoulish surgery involving switched eyeballs guaranteed to titillate the tots. Indeed, the film’s vaunted Pre-Crime technology ends up looking like little more than a peculiarly shaped pinball machine. The incongruities of mixing futuristic environments with defiantly retro costuming are supposed to be amusing. In this respect, the curious publicity campaign to promote Irish Russell Crowe-like rogue actor Colin Farrell as the new Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt heartthrob is sabotaged by the sanitized, American-accented version of Mr. Farrell in a vintage F.B.I. business suit circa 1950.

I won’t go into the holes in the plot, because Swiss-cheese narratives are supposedly part of the postmodern idiom, but I did wonder idly why Anderton seemed to lose interest in the fate of his son by the final fade-out. It struck me also that casting mordant Max Von Sydow as the head honcho gave the show away much too early.

Jacquot’s Tosca Soars

Benoît Jacquot’s Tosca , from Giacomo Puccini’s opera, varies the usual procedures for transposing operas to film by having the three major singers often play their scenes close-lipped, with their off-screen arias serving as interior monologues. The opera itself, more than any work by Puccini, lends itself to an economical mise en scène of architectural grandeur with its three majestic settings, one for each act: first with the Saint’Andrea della Valle Church, second with the Palazzo Farnese, and third with the Castel Sant’Angelo. Angela Gheorghiu as famous prima donna Floria Tosca, Roberto Alagna as her lover Mario Cavaradossi, and Ruggero as the villainous, lecherous police chief Scarpia, all sing beautifully and act adequately, bringing Tosca to cinematic life. Not that it matters all that much. If you love Puccini as much as I do, you can close your eyes to all of Mr. Jacquot’s imaginative innovations and still thrill to the music. If Puccini leaves you cold, you’d better off rushing to see Men in Black II . There is no middle ground here.

Ethnic Extravaganza

Joel Zwick’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding , from a screenplay by Nia Vardalos, based on her stand-up show about growing up Greek, has lasted as one of the most talked-about audience sleepers of the year. Its broad ethnic humor does not offend even Greek-Americans, largely, I think, because of the attractive intelligence of Ms. Vardalos as she widens her eyes over her family’s shenanigans without ever suggesting that she is in any way ashamed of her Greek heritage. Consequently, there are no lasting bite marks from the ethnic exaggerations.

If anyone were to be offended by My Big Fat Greek Wedding , it would have to be the WASP’s, who here sit still for every Greek-American imposition on their good natures. John Corbett’s Ian Miller allows himself to be humiliated in an invasive Greek Orthodox baptism ceremony, not so much to satisfy Ms. Vardalos’ Toula Portokalos as to appease her anguished family. Miller’s parents, Harriet (Fiona Reid) and Rodney (Bruce Gray), are treated even more disrespectfully, with the final indignity being the misprinting of “Harriet” as “Harry” on the wedding invitations. As a witness to several Greek-American weddings-but, happily, a victim of none-I can testify to the comparative accuracy of Ms. Vardalos’ memories and insights. We are a crazy people with much more history than geography, and we are not nearly as lovable as American tourists as My Big Fat Greek Wedding would suggest.

See Metropolis , Now

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), from a screenplay by Lang and Thea von Harbou, is being released by Kino International in a “digital restoration” version to celebrate the 75th anniversary of this seminal classic, inspired by a visit Lang made to New York in the 20′s. Catch it wherever and whenever it plays. It incarnates the idea of the Big City as a manifestation of modernism.