Dir: Jacques Audiard. France. 2001. 115mins

An adventurous mixture of unconventional romance and crime melodrama, Sur Mes Levres underlines writer-director Jacques Audiard's reputation for originality and flair. Initially quite unpredictable, the film, which is released in France this week, remains intriguing even as it becomes increasingly bogged down in the elaborate contortions of the narrative. Engaging performances from Emmanuelle Devos and Vincent Cassel are a large part of its appeal but overall it lacks the obviously winning qualities that endeared Audiard's 1996 Cannes prize-winner Un Heros Tres Discret to international audiences. Wide festival exposure seems likely with moderate theatrical sales.

The film's initial focus is on Carla (Devos), a corporate Cinderella who never receives the reward or the encouragement she deserves for all the long hours and hard work she puts in at a property development firm. Carla also suffers from a hearing deficiency and Audiard cuts off sounds and speeches to pull us further into her world. Away from work, she seems a distant observer of other people's lives, surviving on secondhand stories of boyfriends, babies and lovers.

Carla's Prince Charming arrives in the unlikely form of scruffy, unsophisticated Paul (Cassel), an ex-con, fresh out of jail, who applies for the position of her secretarial assistant. He has no particular skills or aptitude for the job, but she decides to employ him. Covering his mistakes and ineptitude, she cultivates him as a friend and accomplice, seeing him as a possible means of escape from the tedium of her daily existence. Paul has served two years for aggravated robbery and warily becomes the object of her charity. The two of them compete to define the exact nature of their relationship with Paul increasingly intrigued by the possibilities of Carla's ability to read lips. He becomes her defender and champion in the workplace while she agrees to spy on a gang working on a heist. Events become increasingly complicated as the duo are drawn into a world of violence and revenge and Carla eagerly sacrifices her respectability to becomes a willing partner in crime to the man who has saved her from endless lonely nights and bitter days.

The twisting narrative line of Sur Mes Levres requires a fair suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience. A further story element involving Paul's compassionate parole officer and his missing wife appears to be something of a red herring until the closing stages reveal its proper place in the wider picture. What remains crystal clear and credible is the emotional ties between the two central characters. In very different ways, both are outsiders, pushed to the edges of society, and both recognise something of a kindred spirit and rare chance in the other.

Vulnerable in many ways, Devos never plays Carla for easy sympathy; instead she emphasises her anger, self-assurance and embittered desire to prove herself more able and more fascinating than any of her colleagues could ever have imagined. Cassel also finds the humanity of a character baffled by his good fortune and convinced that a helping hand has to come with conditions attached.

The duo make a plausible romantic couple and the way they negotiate their way through the minefield of desire and mutual dependency bears some similarity to the growing affection between con-man Jean-Louis Trintignant and wide-eyed innocent Mathieu Kassovitz in Audiard's first feature Regarde Les Hommes Tomber (1994).

Prod co: Sedif
Fr dist: Pathe
Int'l sales: Pathe International
Prods: Philippe Carcassonne, Jean-Louis Livi
Scr: Jacques Audiard, Tonino Benacquista
Cinematography: Mathieu Vadepied
Prod des: Michael Bathelemy
Ed: Juliette Welfling
Main cast: Vincent Cassel, Emmanuelle Devos, Olivier Gourmet, Olivier Perrier, Olivia Bonamy