In Steven Spielberg’s latest picture, a skinheaded psychic named Agatha keeps challenging Tom Cruise with the words, “Can you see?” The question answers itself: Cruise sees in Minority Report, but not well enough. He must learn to recognize his ocular limitations–a task he accomplishes by enduring chase scenes, double-crosses, confrontations at gunpoint and a few jocularly nauseating trials, conducted in Spielberg’s bucket-of-bugs, Indiana Jones style.
In Jacques Audiard’s new picture, by contrast, Emmanuelle Devos can’t hear, and she knows it from the start. The first shot in Read My Lips is an image of her tucking a hearing aid behind one ear, then concealing it with her hair. Her first lines, spoken while answering the phone in a nerve-jangling office, include the words, “I didn’t hear. Can you repeat that?” Her task in the movie–accomplished through acts of larceny and hostage-taking–is to learn how much power she might have, despite her aural limitations.
Ineluctable modalities of the filmable! We are discussing not only sight and sound but also America and France, plot and character, man and woman, innocence and experience. Film culture needs both sides; so if I tell you that I’d gladly watch Read My Lips several times but will be content with one viewing of Minority Report, please don’t take it to mean that Minority Report shouldn’t be seen at all. On the contrary: To miss it would be like bypassing one of those grand and macabre curiosities that lie just off the tourist’s route–like visiting Madrid, for example, without troubling to descend the marbled stair to the crypt of the Escorial. In the monumental edifice of Minority Report, as in that palatial tomb, you may encounter something madly idiosyncratic, yet absolutely characteristic of its culture. It’s just not much of a pleasure; whereas Read My Lips is so much fun, it could be retitled Curl My Toes.
But, to begin with Spielberg:
After last summer’s release of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, all true filmoids were eager to know what nightmare he might next sweat out in public. Under the influence of Stanley Kubrick, under the pretense of selling us entertainment, Spielberg had made a nakedly confessional movie about abandonment, disillusionment and the corruptions of show business. Past a certain point, of course, the picture was a misshapen wreck; but that was because A.I. struggled so desperately to escape itself and concoct a happy ending. The harder it strained, the more compelling, and horrifying, it became. I felt that Spielberg had at last tapped into emotions he’d located not in his audience but in himself. Could he maintain that connection, now that he’d established it? That was the question hanging over Minority Report.
The answer is now before us, in the only futuristic, metaphysical thriller I can think of that takes the violation of civil liberties as its theme and the abuse of children as its obsession. These twin facets of Minority Report come together, improbably but unforgettably, in the figures of oracles known as Pre-Cogs. They lie in a bottom-lit, Y-shaped pool somewhere in Washington, DC, in the year 2054: three damaged orphans who are adult in form but fetal in situation, since they are kept floating in an amniotic fluid of high narcotic content. Their fate (you can’t really call it a job) is to remain forever in that stage of childhood where every shadow in the bedroom conceals a monster. Unfortunately, the monsters are real: They are the murderers who will strike in the near future, and whose crimes the psychics not only foresee but experience. You might think someone would take pity on the Pre-Cogs and release them from these visions, at which they convulse in pain and horror. Instead, for the public benefit, a police agency called the Department of Pre-Crime maintains these creatures in a permanent state of terror.
We come to the theme of civil liberties, which must have required some precognition on Spielberg’s part, since Minority Report went into production well before John Ashcroft declared due process to be an unaffordable luxury. It is the movie’s conceit (borrowed from the writings of Philip K. Dick) that the police may someday arrest people pre-emptively, for crimes they would have committed had they been left on the loose. As chief of the Pre-Crime unit, Tom Cruise sees no problem with this practice, either legally or philosophically–which is why he is half-blind. He doesn’t yet understand that the rights he takes away from others may also be taken from him.
But I’m making it sound as if Minority Report constructs an argument, when it actually contrives a delirium. A sane movie would have been content to give Cruise a reason for arresting pre-criminals. For example, he could have been blinded by the pain of losing a son. That, in fact, is how the plot accounts for Cruise’s keen efficiency; but it isn’t enough of an explanation for Spielberg, who goes on to embed a second rationale in the mise en scène. Every setting, prop and gesture shows us that Cruise does this job because it excites him.
He’s in his brush-cut mode in Minority Report. He rockets around Washington, rappels onto the pre-crime scene, dives at the last second between the would-be killer and the not-quite-victim–and that’s just the conventional part of his work. The real thrill comes from interpreting the Pre-Cogs’ visions, which he does in front of a wraparound computer screen while a stereo pipes in the Unfinished Symphony. Waving his hands against the music’s rhythm, making digital images slide around at will, he looks like a cross between an orchestra conductor and a film editor, working at some Avid console of the future.
So childhood pain in Minority Report bleeds into fear of crime, which blossoms into a fantasy of omnipotence–and this fantasy in turn sows further pain, in the form of little stabs to the eye. In the year 2054, government bureaus and advertising agencies alike scan your retina wherever you go, blinding you with lasers a hundred times a day to track your whereabouts, your spending, your preferences in clothing from the Gap. What does it matter if Cruise comes to see the dangerous fallacy of pre-crime? Human freedom has already vanished from his world, in the blink of an eye.
I hope it’s clear from this summary that Minority Report not only represents another of Spielberg’s Major Statements but also continues his risky new practice of self-expression–risky because his feelings remain unresolved, and also because he allows them to be Major. A solemnity pervades the movie, making itself felt most tellingly at moments of incidental humor. Spielberg has never been a rollicking filmmaker–the human activities that least interest him are laughter and sex–but in the past he’s known how to raise a chuckle, and he’s known when to do it. In Minority Report, though, clumsy throwaway gags keep interrupting the action, as if Spielberg had lost his sense of how to play with the audience. Slapstick assaults upon a family at the dinner table, or Olympian sneers at bickering couples, do nothing to leaven Minority Report. The movie’s ponderousness is relieved only by Samantha Morton’s uncanny portrayal of the psychic Agatha and by Lois Smith’s turn as Dr. Hineman, the researcher who ought to have healed the Pre-Cogs but instead turned them into tools of the police. When Cruise goes to visit Smith at her greenhouse hideaway, the colors of Brutalist architecture briefly give way to those of nature, and the pace of the acting triples. Speaking her lines over and around Cruise, Smith plays her role in the manner of Vladimir Horowitz dashing off an étude.
“Who is the strongest Pre-Cog?” Cruise wants to know. Smith smiles indulgently at the blind man. “Why, the woman, dear.” This claim of female superiority has the charm of gallantry; it’s Spielberg’s gift to the actress. But as it’s developed in the rest of the movie, the notion (like far too much of Minority Report) lacks the flourish that gallantry requires. I offer sincere congratulations to Spielberg for at least two-thirds of this picture; but now I think it’s time to leave Minority Report and consider a movie about a real woman.
Her name is Carla. She works for a real estate development company, where she’s treated like part of the office equipment. As embodied by Emmanuelle Devos, Carla has an apology for a hairdo and a choked-off complaint for a lower lip. When she’s casually insulted–her paperwork ruined by the spill from a coffee cup, her skirt stained suggestively under the rump–Carla falls apart so completely that her boss offers to let her hire an assistant. “Trainees are cheap,” he explains, as if that would make her feel better. She hires one anyway and comes up with the man of her dreams: Paul (Vincent Cassel), a greasy, long-haired, leather-jacketed, muttering ex-con, who assures her (while his eyes scan for the exit) that sure, he’s worked with, uhm, spreadsheets. Plenty of them.
One of the pleasures of Read My Lips–a pleasure that isn’t available in Minority Report–is the way the movie invites you to see into these characters, who always amount to more than their functions in the plot. Early on, for example, when Carla and Paul are just getting to know each other, you see how they might be bound by a common lack of decorum. “What were you in jail for?” Carla asks bluntly, violating rule number one for dealing with ex-cons. Paul answers her, then asks in turn, “So you’re deaf? I mean, really deaf? Like, you can’t hear?” Although she tells him to shut up, Carla doesn’t hesitate to play along when he asks her to read someone’s lips. He likes her willingness to trespass on others. She likes the muscle he provides.
Although Carla’s alliance with Paul develops uneasily, it’s not without humor. (No false notes here; Audiard always gets the tone right.) But even though the bumps and jolts of the plot are intriguing–and far more numerous than those in Minority Report–what’s perhaps most engaging in Read My Lips is the evocation of Carla’s reality. The images are often incomplete, oddly framed, out of focus, unsteady, surprisingly closeup, bathed in shadow, richly colored, dreamily slow. This is the subjective vision of human eyes, not the objective gaze of the camera–and Carla sees it all the more vividly because the world of sound is closed.
I like the sensuousness of Read My Lips and the nuance of its portrait of a woman. I like the sense of possibility in the characters, the interplay between Devos and Cassel, the mundane realism of the plot (which asks you to believe only that the real estate business isn’t entirely clean, and that large sums of cash sometimes flow through bars). I even like the happy ending. Although Spielberg’s picture is the one titled Minority Report–an ironic name for a Tom Cruise blockbuster, as its maker surely knows–Read My Lips files the story that’s too infrequently heard.