Jacques Audiard is a sort of perfect director for me. Like Bong Joon-ho, he meshes thrilling genre stories with smart, unsentimental social realism. In this, his third film as director after See How They Fall and A Self-Made Hero, he teams up with Vincent Cassel and Emmanuelle Devos for this muscular romantic thriller.
Carla (Devos), who has partial hearing, is overworked and underappreciated in her office job. Paul (Cassel), is fresh out of prison and obligated by his parole officer to get a proper occupation. She ends up hiring Paul as an assistant via an employment agency and their initial wariness develops into a relationship of mutual use and abuse. However, feelings get stronger as they play off against each other whilst planning to double-cross a local gangster.
The story here is ripe genre fare and yet the whole plot occurs because of the characters’ needs, desires and social situation. Early on, Carla has Paul help her blackmail a colleague who has stolen a lucrative building contract from her. Why did he steal it? Because he is the yuppie prick we’ve all seen who thinks he’s better than the woman/cripple he works with. With Audiard, the social context creates the drama. Carla has the strength to deal with this arsehole a) because she has had to put up with his abusive bullshit since God knows when and b) because she now has an ally in Paul, who has won her trust enough to be let on to the fact that she can lip read all the horrible shit that this guy says about her, day in day out.
From this blackmailing comes a relationship between the two leads that relies on the pair of them playing off what are, simultaneously, their weaknesses and their strengths. Carla uses Paul for his criminal instincts and Paul uses Carla for her lip-reading skills and wallflower personality.
The added brilliance of Audiard’s casting (and the same could be said almost across the board with his filmography) is that he chooses actors who are very attractive but not conventionally good looking. The problem with so many films where stars try to play ordinary people is that they either look ridiculously unattainable or they feel the need to “ugly up”. With Devos and Cassel, you have two actors who are sexy and smart but with appearances that would not stand out from a crowd too much. You could single them out in a bar if you were on the pull but otherwise, you wouldn’t look twice. This makes me consider the scene, late on, in which Paul is angry at Carla for chatting up two guys in the bar where he works and where they are planning a scam. He is angry, obviously, because his feelings for her are deepening but could it also be because, having finally, properly dolled herself up, she is making herself noticeable whereas, she very conveniently was not before?
Like Stéphanie the Orca Trainer, and Alain the bare-knuckle boxer, in Audiard’s 2012 feature, Rust and Bone, Carla and Paul’s romance is a convenience of social misfortune and shared injustice. In the wrong hands, deaf girl/paraplegic falls for ex-con/migrant boxer could be the most irritating, patronising bullshit but for Audiard, stories come out of the way the world seems to work in the 21st century. Like Malik, the mixed race inmate protagonist of 2009’s A Prophet, the characters are motivated by dint of being in the large proportion of society who fall off the edge of the mainstream and for reasons of survival, reach out for whomever might falling with or near them.