"A spellbinding and scary tale of female friendship.”
Breathe is a French coming-of-age drama based on a popular young adult novel, Respire, by Anne-Sophie Brasme. This second feature from Melanie Laurent, which already premiered at 2015 Cannes Film Festival, is well-executed portrayal of teenage girls gone ruthless and destructive when their co-dependent relationship is tarnished by secrecy and jealousy.
“Passion is harmful when it becomes obsessive,” says a teacher in an unnamed French high school in the movie’s opening. Charlie (Josephine Japy), a 17-year-old teenager in her final year of school, is shy, serene, asthmatic but prim and attractive. She has some sort of fling to schoolmate Lucas (Louka Meliava). Her life at home may not be as pleasing as her parents (Isabelle Carre and Radivoje Bukvic) are in a constant cycle of breaking up and getting back together.
Charlie’s life takes a dramatic turn when Sarah (Lou de Laage), a confident, glamorous and rebellious transferee, eyes her as her best friend. She smokes cigarettes from Nigeria where her mother works for an NGO. The previous year, her mom took her on a safari trip. She is good in their gym class and even in mathematics. Everything is thrilling for Charlie while unconsciously, she drifts away from her childhood best friend Victoire (Roxane Duran), sneaks cigarettes in the school bathroom, spends more time on the telephone and goes out dancing at night more frequently than she should.
Their friendship begins to crack when Sarah comes along with Charlie on a weekend trip with her family. When Sarah begins to flirt with two men, Charlie becomes slightly jealous and possessive. After which, the two becomes cautious of each other. While Sarah desperately harbours her secrets, Charlie becomes more confused of her feelings toward her. In a puzzling turn of events, Sarah wages a war that Charlie willingly takes in.
Breathe is a perceptive, confident and frighteningly precise story of female friendships. Such relationships can be heavily expedient or powerfully manipulative, depending on how a party sees them. Charlie appears to be the aggrieved friend in the film. An almost invisible wallflower in the beginning, Sarah gives her a sense of belonging and importance. So when her supposed new best friend dumps her, she becomes uncertain of herself. Yet, she does not want to let go no matter how Sarah treats her. Emulating her mother’s constant forgiveness of her infidel father, Charlie plays martyr and absorbs everything Sarah does to undermine her.
Yet, Sarah also believes she is also the victim here. She is hurt when she is introduced by Charlie as simply her classmate. That changes the landscape and as someone needing stronghold and stability, Sarah seeks out a new accompany. In the feature’s amazing final act, Sarah blurts out everything she feels against Charlie, especially on her friend’s passiveness and refusal to fight back. In the eyes of everyone, she is a liar and a bully.
The first half of the film is truly interesting as it sweetly builds the characters. The second half steps down a notch as it becomes clichéd, putting up a Mean Girl kind of acts. Yet, the tension intensifies as revelations are made.
The material may not be new but Laurent captures the drama in a truly captivating fashion. It is straight forward and fast-paced, with some scenes depicted as isolated images or montage of various moments. It is softly and gorgeously shot, evoking a dreamy lightness and sensation.
Laage and Japy both deliver realistic performances. Japy, with her docile countenance and beauty, brings the tender vulnerabilities of Charlie. Laage steals the show as the free-spirited and seductive Sarah. She is both enthralling and compelling as she exudes a dangerous mix of late adolescent sexuality and wishful thinking.
Breathe is a gripping and frightening picture of female friendship gone sour. It is familiar but nonetheless juicy and exciting. In essence, the movie contends how women can be a source of support and happiness, as well as grudge and bitterness, for each other.
Production company: Film Movement
Cast: Josephine Japy, Lou de Laage, Isabelle Carre, Roxane Duran, Radivoje Bukvic, Louka Meliava, Claire Keim, Carole Franck, Thomas Soliveres, Camille Claris, Louis Grinberg, Fanny Sidney
Director: Melanie Laurent
Screenwriter: Julien Lambroschini, Melanie Laurent
Producer: Bruno Levy
Director of photography: Arnaud Potier
Production designer: Stanislas Reydellet
Costume designer: Maira Ramedhan-Levi
Editor: Guerric Catala
Music: Marc Chouarain