But Devos's Clara suffers for her slight reward. At work, she's a nothing, a secretary stuck with the grunt work -- taking messages, making copies and coffee, sending faxes, lying to her bosses' wives about their afternoon whereabouts. As she ignores those around her, they, too, keep their distance, except to use her desk as a place to dump their coffee cups. She's clearly bright, obviously beautiful, but nonetheless a thing to be used rather than an employee to be valued and trusted. When she faints in the office, overwhelmed by work and her dissatisfaction with what little life she has, no one pays any attention. It's as though someone dropped a pencil.
For a little while, the taut, riveting Read My Lips, directed by Jacques Audiard and written by Audiard and Tonino Benacquista, plays like an inner-office comedy-drama -- Office Space without the goofy, Haiku Tunnel without the gooey. Audiard keeps things shaky, grim, claustrophobic, doomed. His film has the feel of documentary, as he follows Clara through the daily grind that pulverizes her. We're in her head, literally: Audiard plays with audio and video, letting us hear what she does (a muffled crunch when she's fiddling with her earpieces) or doesn't, letting us see what she's focused on, which is the lips of co-workers who unknowingly insult Clara, a deft lip-reader, to her sweet porcelain face. She's at the bottom of the food chain and being eaten alive by higher-ups, who won't allow her to see through to its completion a project she's been stewarding for months. Outside of work, she's likewise a doormat. She baby-sits for a friend trapped in a loveless marriage, even lends her apartment for illicit trysts. Her friend never stops to ask whether Clara has a date, knowing it's unlikely.
Only when Clara is allowed to hire an assistant does her life improve. At last, she has someone to boss around -- an ex-con named Paul (Vincent Cassel, who always looks as though he's caked in dried blood), who's as incompetent as he is crass. But what begins as a master-slave relationship deepens (or sinks, perhaps). In time, Clara and Paul use each other, even abuse each other, to get what they want -- she, respect and advancement at work; he, getting out of debt to a nightclub owner who'd just as soon kill him.
Theirs becomes a sordid, co-dependent relationship. She uses him to advance her career, by means surreptitious and even violent, while he uses her lip-reading ability to exact revenge upon men who'd use his face as a punching bag. And their twists get even more twisted: After she has given him a home and money and a job, Paul damned near rapes her, thinking she wants to sleep with him. Repulsed at first, she says no -- but still goes home and wraps her nude body in his bloodied shirt. In any other film, these two might even be viewed as unsympathetic characters -- charlatans on the make, those who think life owes them something and will take what they perceive as theirs. But we root for them, even like them, though perhaps it's an emotion closer to pity.
Read My Lips feels like a giant con, a devilish double cross -- we trust no one -- but not because Audiard and Benacquista are peddling warmed-over Mamet or Hitchcock (one gripping scene, less homage than reinterpretation, is viewed through a Rear Window). On the contrary, Clara and Paul know precisely what the other's up to and go along nonetheless; there's an honesty among these bottom-of-the-barrel thieves. She loves the con, because it gives her life; it puts color in her face and brings a spring to her step. He just needs to get out of debt. But their reasons for stealing become one and the same: The swindles give them both life, not merely the chance for a better one. Pray only that they never experience it together.