Midway through Jacques Audiard’s Read My Lips, ex-con Paul (Vincent Cassel) tries to convince secretary Carla (Emmanuelle Devos) to help him pull off a major theft. When the woman resists the idea, Paul snaps: “Let’s cut the crap – just tell me what you want.” Carla tells Paul she won’t participate in his plan unless he comes back to the office and continues to be her assistant. “Take it or leave it,” she says defiantly.
An equally aggressive interaction occurs in the second half of David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence. After discovering that her husband lived a life of crime in Philly and changed his name before marrying her, Edie (Maria Bello) asks him: “What are you?! Like some multiple personality schizoid?!” Her husband, Tom (Viggo Mortensen), says he assumed his dark past and former name (Joey Cusack) were behind him. He replies helplessly: “I never expected to see Joey again.”
The tough words Carla and Edie use during these moments reveal critical turning points in both Read My Lips and A History of Violence. Both films feature a significant exchange of values between a former criminal and a woman on the right side of the law. Carla and Edie start out as trusting and kind; exposure to their partners’ threatening ways inspires the women to become assertive, outspoken and even violent. Although Paul and Tom resort to violence frequently throughout the films, the men ultimately become more sensitive and aware of their actions than ever before. A variety of filmic techniques reveal the considerable behavioral shifts that occur between the lovers in both films.
Dialogue exposes the great divide between Paul and Carla early on in Read My Lips. During their first meeting after Paul has been hired at the office, Carla asks Paul why he hasn’t worked for two years. Paul admits: “I was in Fleury. Doing time.” Natural lighting makes Carla look especially innocent as she asks: “What kind of time?” Baffled by her question, Paul responds contemptuously: “Time Magazine. I was in jail! Are you shitting me?”
Multiple point-of-view shots from Carla’s perspective as she stares at Paul making copies showcase the nearly-deaf woman’s growing fascination with her co-worker. Tight framing during two-shots of the characters suggests that their lives are becoming more and more intertwined. After Carla provides Paul with living quarters and an advance on his paycheck, the ex-con makes a move that permanently alters their relationship.
In a medium long shot with natural light streaming through Paul’s apartment, the man gropes and kisses Carla. Startled and scared, Carla tries to defend herself as Paul forces her onto a countertop. Her girlish hair clip and modest clothing convey how inappropriate Paul’s advances are. Carla breaks free before Paul can harm her. She may be attracted to Paul, but her reaction suggests Carla wants their relationship to blossom on her terms.
Paul’s violent move has surprising consequences. Carla forces Paul to steal files that will ensure her upward mobility at the firm. Paul, in turn, makes Carla read the lips of thugs he intends to steal from. Partners in crime, Paul and Carla are increasingly featured in two shots. A birthday party scene exposes the sexual chemistry between the couple. Soft, Latin music in the background hints that romance is in the air. The camera zooms in to position the pair in a close-up, emphasizing the growing connection between the two. “Can you take my hand?” she asks him. He pulls her to his chest, asking softly: “Do we get to smooch?” That he asks the question instead of simply planting a kiss stresses his emerging respect for and tenderness toward Carla.
A club scene in the film showcases Carla’s ability to make Paul jealous. A point-of-view shot from Paul’s perspective of Carla wearing a fashionable outfit and flirting with two guys proves that the ex-con wants the woman to himself. “Are you done?” Paul asks her. Carla pretends she doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Paul’s protective side is soon revealed as he beats up a guy who has tried to rape Carla in the club’s parking lot. Positioned in a two-shot with his arm around her, Paul says: “It’s okay. It’s over.” The club sequence summarizes the exchange of values that occurs during the film – Carla has become more confident and Paul has become both caring and considerate.
The behavioral shifts that occur between Edie and Tom in A History of Violence take place under very different circumstances. Frequently positioned in two-shots with romantic, tranquil music playing, the spouses appear to be very much in love. Edie’s high school cheerleader outfit during the couple’s first intimate scene reveals the passionate, surprise-filled nature of the couple’s sex life. “You’re naughty,” Tom says playfully. Long takes during the scene emphasize the couple’s incredibly strong bond.
However, Edie’s discovery of Tom’s dark past significantly changes the way the couple communicates with one another. Edie’s firsthand view of Tom’s violent behavior makes the woman both frightened and repulsed by her husband. The partners are increasingly positioned in separate shots; morose, slightly haunting music plays during the couple’s heated arguments. As Edie becomes more and more disgusted by her husband, the woman also becomes more verbally assertive with him. The normally composed and respectful Edie uses profanity and raises her voice.
The couple’s violent sex on their staircase reveals the increasingly disturbing nature of their relationship. Quick cuts exaggerate the pain the partners experience as they shift around on the steps. Close-ups of different parts of their bodies reveal the wild, animalistic nature of their rough sex. The unnerving music that plays during the scene is a far cry from the peaceful score that accompanied the couple’s morning car rides together. However, that Edie pushes her husband off of her at the end of their act suggests that the woman may still have some control in the relationship.
The rest of Tom’s violent actions in the film are geared toward protecting his family and himself. However, the former criminal still experiences a reawakening that may finally put an end to his violent impulses. Having killed off everyone tied to his former life, Tom washes his face and upper body in the lake by his brother’s mansion. Natural lighting and the high angle shot long shot of Tom kneeling as he washes himself suggest that the man understands he has hit rock bottom. By purifying himself, Tom clearly hopes his family will accept him again.
During the dinner table scene as Tom returns to his home, the lengthy shots of his family members staring in his direction reveal their genuine desire to be close with him again. The tears running down Tom’s face reveal the man’s shame and vulnerability. The shot/reverse/shot pattern between Edie and her husband suggests that the spouses believe their relationship is worth repairing.