by Jacques Audiard
You know a thriller is hyped if it’s described as “Hitchcockian.”
In the case of the imaginative French import Read My Lips,
the adjective actually fits. As in the esteemed films of Alfred
Hitchcock, the relationships between the characters in Jacques
Audiard’s film are as important—perhaps even more important—than
the criminal mystery at the heart of the story.
Carla (Emmanuelle Devos) is enormously put-upon and taken
for granted in her job. As the principle secretary and receptionist
for a Paris construction company, she is given the maximum
amount of work and given the least credit. When she finally
passes out from exhaustion (in the middle of the office),
Carla is allowed to hire an assistant. Mousy and lonely, Carla
contrives to limit the pool of applicants to males between
the ages of 20 and 25.
Matching the important aspects of her criteria, the employment
agency sends Paul (Vincent Cassel), a recent parolee with
no office experience. Paul is unsuitable for the job, but
Carla finds that his surly good looks suit her, and she hires
him. The former stick-up man and petty thief adjusts to the
world of copy machines and faxes with some difficulty, but
makes a real effort because he doesn’t want to do even more
Paul is also intrigued by her: He’s the first person in the
office to notice that Carla, who is severely hearing-impaired
and wears aids in both ears, can read lips. As the outsiders
in the company, they form a bond. Given Paul’s criminal past,
we immediately suspect that he will find some innovative use
for her unheralded talent—one that will provide the romance
and danger Carla clearly craves.
Her path to crime and his progress to a functional level of
respectability form the heart of the drama. Each exploits
the other’s talents for their own benefit. When a slimy sales
rep named Keller (Pierre Diot) at the construction firm takes
over a project Carla developed, she blackmails Paul into helping
her get it back. When Paul is clued in to a potentially big
heist going on under his very nose, he manipulates Carla into
using her lip-reading skills to get all the details. He becomes
smoother; she becomes less conventional, buying sexy clothing
to go nightclubbing. All the while, the two are drawn ever
closer in a relationship based on needs that transcend love,
or even lust. It’s almost a kind of spiritual fulfillment
Director (and co-screenwriter) Jacques Audiard makes imaginative
use of Carla’s disability, both in the story and as a cinematic
device. Much of the drama is based on the point of view of
Carla and Paul—the audience never learns the details of the
big score, or many other details outside the direct experiences
of the two partners. Mirroring this, most scenes in which
Carla appears include an awareness of her hearing impairment.
We hear what she does, depending on whether she has her aids
turned on (what she does and doesn’t want to hear is
also a window into her character).
The performances by Devos and Cassel are remarkable. Since
the characters don’t fall in love at first, second, or even
third sight, audience interest in the curious progress of
their relationship depends on the subtlety of the actors’
interplay. When Carla’s and Paul’s moment of truth arrives
at the end of the film, the effect is emotionally and dramatically
Menu of Life
by Sandra Nettlebeck
My mother used to have a collection of cooking books, each
centered around a particular cuisine, circa 1935. As a child,
I absolutely loved perusing these tomes, lingering over the
pictures and conjuring up dinner parties. That is, I enjoyed
all the books save for the German, whose gobstopping takes
on entrails and other organ meats did little to recommend
the illustrations of hearty Teutonic hausfraus in braids and
corsets, handing out tankards of what could only have been
bitter ale to wash down those horrible recipes. Really, how
romantic could German cuisine be?
This was my thought as I settled into Mostly Martha,
a new comedy espousing that food-as-metaphor-for-life ideal
that countless columnists are using to explain the success
of, say, the TV Food Network. With the exception of a narrative
on how best to prepare pigeons, we are spared the agony of
watching German chef Martha (Martha Gedeck) make her own sausauges.
Instead, director Sandra Nettlebeck features the winsome if
rigid chef deftly sautéing rainbow slivers of vegetables and
perfectly delectable-looking meats like lamb and steak. As
she recounts to the psychiatrist whom her boss orders her
to see, Martha has an affinity for the poor lobster, who eats
himself from the inside out when trapped. Here is a woman
at the peak of her career, commanding her own kitchen, but
unable to embrace life, let alone ever eat the incredible
dishes she makes for herself at home.
All of this changes, slowly, when she has to take in her niece
Lina (Maxime Foerste) upon the death of the girl’s mother.
Forced to share, first, her life and home, and then, when
her boss hires assistant chef Mario (Sergio Castelitto), her
sacred kitchen, Martha is rattled to the core. Can she find
those maternal instincts nestled within? Will she take after
Mario and begin spilling sauce over the sides of pans—here
clearly seen as the sign of a healthy psyche? How will she
deal with that pesky customer who demands a redo on his steak?
Admittedly, this is fluffy stuff, made more, er, palatable
by agreeable stars, a sense of fun, and, of course, gorgeous
food, played out against an aural backdrop of decidedly un-Germanesque
jazz. Mostly Martha is squarely targeted at foodies
like myself, who devour each new issue of Gourmet and
wax orgasmic over the sight of fresh sorrel at the farmer’s
market. It’s easy to overlook the rather simplistic way in
which Martha’s character is written: She is yet another successful
career woman whose starched toque hides a barren love life.
Mario is likeable, sure, and his way with Lina sure beats
Martha’s, but are we supposed to find it ludicrous that Martha
would have a near panic attack when she sees the way in which
Mario, having made her an Italian dinner, has soiled her home
kitchen? Indeed, all I could think was, great, she gets this
terrific dinner, but she still has to wash the dishes—which
I guess is, in the end, what relationships boil down to.
As if we don’t get the point, Nettlebeck does the classic
hair thing—Martha spends most of the movie with a neat bun,
but following a night of love and truffles with Mario, she’s
wearing it loose over her shoulders. Food may be a metaphor
for life, but in Mostly Martha, it’s a way to meet
guys who can improve your life.
man out: Ledger in The Four Feathers.
by Shekar Kapur
In The Four Feathers, Shekar Kapur’s slavish adaptation
of the 1902 novel by A.E.W. Mason, a British outpost in Sudan
is overtaken by the fanatical rebel forces of Mahdi Mohammed.
The scene is suffused with a dread that Mason could not have
imagined in the days when Great Britain ruled over a quarter
of the world, and the petrodollar and the Taliban were far
in the future. This politically charged sequence, however,
is almost accidental: Kapur’s romantic epic avoids geopolitics
like the plague, to the point where some of plot is almost
incomprehensible. Those soldiers in the fezzes, it might be
helpful to know, are Egyptian allies of the British.
With more strategy and less Victorian melodrama, The Four
Feathers might’ve rivaled the thrilling ahistoricism of
Shekur’s previous film, Elizabeth. This film certainly
has a lot going for it: a tumultuous story ripe for revisionism,
exotic locales, and natural-born swashbuckler Heath Ledger
as the hero. Ledger is Harry Faversham, an officer engaged
to Ethne (Kate Hudson), and close-as-brothers with vainglorious
Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley), who is equally smitten with Ethne.
Why these two dashing aristos are so taken with the blandly
sensible young blonde (Hudson doesn’t cut it as a great beauty
or as a Brit) is just one of many vaporish notions that Kapur
substantiates with his astonishing visual flair.
Affable Harry turns suddenly sullen when war is declared,
and he resigns his commission. He has a mild objection to
fighting in the desert, for which he pays dearly when his
father disowns him and his comrades send him four white feathers—symbols
of cowardice. Determined to redeem himself, Harry makes his
way across hostile northeast Africa, alone, to join the fighting
and return the feathers with honor. First he is afraid, and
then he is fearless. He almost dies in the desert and is saved
by Abou Fatma (Djimon Hounsou), a Muslim mercenary who, for
some vaguely karmic reason, becomes his devoted protector.
Harry disguises himself as an Arab and spies for the British,
unbeknownst to his beleaguered regiment. At one point, he
surrenders to the horrific Omdurman prison on the exceedingly
slim chance that he can save one of his fine-feather-friends.
Harry’s motivations are patently ludicrous, and both Harry
and Abou are little more than ciphers.
But as ciphers go, they are intensely watchable. Hounsou (Amistad,
Gladiator) has a sensational physicality that matches
the breathtaking cinematography. Abou is far more interesting
than Jack, who, unfortunately for the plot, remains the object
of Harry’s heroics. Jack is played by Bentley (American
Beauty) with a ridiculously stiff upper lip and a matching
accent; that two of the three leading roles were cast with
Americans was probably meant to bolster the marquee, but it
weakens the film’s unabashedly anglophile ambience. Britain’s
presence in the Sudan is never questioned, not even by Abou,
although the action bristles with barbarities committed by
The climactic set piece, where the British are distracted
by unarmed dervish martyrs only to be assaulted east, west,
north and south by Mahdi cavalry, is one of the most exciting
battle sequences in recent memory, and is greatly aided by
Kapur’s facility for dramatic camera angling. The director
is especially dexterous with crowd scenes, and the depictions
of Egyptians, British and assorted African tribes jostling
in the wake of the Empire’s military juggernaut are indications
of the film that might have been. As promised, The Four
Feathers gallops with the energy of the Four Horsemen
of the lavish cinematic epic: “Freedom, country, honor,” and
sumptuous art direction. But for all its grand passions, the
film’s impact is strictly featherweight.
Ecks vs. Sever
We have seen our share of video/computer games turned into
dull movies. And from Super Mario Brothers to Lara
Croft: Tomb Raider, we have seen such vital actors as
Bob Hoskins and Angelina Jolie forced into two- dimensional
roles that only drew interest from what charisma the actors
innately possessed. Now we have Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever,
arguably the worst of the lot.
To play the roles of international spies Ecks and Sever, the
producers have enlisted Antonio Banderas and Lucy Liu, two
strong presences who serve as cool eye candy while posing
in front of any of the film’s myriad explosions. Ecks is a
former FBI agent who sits around in bars feeling morose and
looking handsomely unkempt, because he thinks his lover died
in a car fire due to his being an agent. Sever is a renegade
agent who wants to avenge her child, who died as a result
of another former agent’s willingness to sacrifice innocent
lives in his pursuit of greed and “justice.” Now, Ecks and
Sever are crossing paths and gun sights as they pursue separate
goals that have more in common than they first realize.
I won’t bother summarizing any more of the routine plot lest
it rob viewers of what scant intrigue the film offers. Essentially,
the entire film functions to set up various confrontations
that culminate in high ballistics and a plethora of pyrotechnics.
True to his name, the Thai director creates chaos and shoots
enough holes in the plot to dissolve any suspense or logic.
Meanwhile, all Banderas and Liu get to do is to look rugged.
Banderas has more dialogue (not that it matters), while Liu
gets to engage in more physical martial arts. She comports
herself very well and cuts an exciting action figure, as she
did in the enormously more enjoyable Charlie’s Angels,
but it is sad to see her reduced to a series of poses as she
impassively regards the havoc she wrecks. Still, she has an
undeniable magnetism even in the film’s dullest moments. Sever
is supposed to be a ghostly enigma, and Liu easily accomplishes
this. But it is all too easy.
If the film had functioned along the lines of Mad Magazine’s
“Spy vs. Spy” cartoon, it might have been more diverting—certainly,
the hand-to-foot fight in which Ecks and Sever repeatedly
disarm each other is great fun—but inventiveness is quickly
jettisoned in favor of munitions. Sort of makes you think
of the real world. Maybe they could do a sequel: Fatalistic:
Bush vs. Hussein.