Editor’s Note: Breathe opens in limited release today, September 11, 2015.
When high schooler Charlie (Joséphine Japy) meets charismatic new student Sarah (Lou de Laâge), she’s immediately taken with her worldliness, exuberance and charm. The pair become inseparable, and Charlie’s best friend Victoire (Roxane Duran) is relegated to third-wheel status, then forgotten. Like so many teenagers before them, Charlie and Sarah dive into an intense friendship before either really knows the other, the secrets they share only scratching the surface of their true personalities. But soon it becomes clear that Sarah’s secrets were lies, her true secrets are terrifying, and her vivacious nature can quickly turn deceptive and cruel. In almost no time at all, the pair find themselves in a codependent horror show of a relationship, each obsessed with the other for all the wrong reasons.
Far too often, a few well-placed words and pithy half-truths are all one needs to convince people that the victim is the cause of her own personal hell. . .
As Breathe, the second feature from actress-director Mélanie Laurent, slowly drifts away from coming-of-age drama and into the realm of psychological horror, its quiet moments turn into lengthy, agonizing scenes of emotional claustrophobia. Tremendous performances by Joséphine Japy and Lou de Laâge add nuance and depth to their complicated relationship, and both actresses show obvious affection for their troubled characters.
Sarah continues to act out in subtly inappropriate ways, insinuating herself into the breakup of Charlie’s parents, as well as showing interest in the man Charlie’s mom (Isabelle Carré) is seeing. Charlie is somehow held to a higher standard of behavior, however, and when she makes a small social misstep, Sarah turns relentlessly cruel, and Charlie is unable — or unwilling — to fight back.
Human nature being what it is means that Sarah will have plenty of her fellow teens on her side, as well as plenty of audience members who will believe that Charlie’s weaknesses and comparatively mild imperfections mean she’s bringing much of Sarah’s wrath on herself. Far too often, a few well-placed words and pithy half-truths are all one needs to convince people that the victim is the cause of her own personal hell, and the rest of us, on account of being so much smarter and more clever and emotionally together, would never allow such a thing to happen.
Breathe. . .is without question sympathetic to the female characters in a way that other films never are, and many in the audience won’t be.
In its best moments, Breathe plays with this insidious idea, unearthing the terror and the truth behind some of our ugliest, albeit human, moments. But Breathe’s one major misstep is that it makes these keen observations on a foundation of tropes that are so old-fashioned as to be sexist. Women’s sexualities are dangerous and volatile, especially if lesbianism is lurking under the surface; all women compete with each other to an unhealthy degree; women are untrustworthy and duplicitous; mothers are the root cause of all problems.
Breathe takes these stereotypes in unique and often worthwhile directions, and is without question sympathetic to the female characters in a way that other films never are, and many in the audience won’t be; that alone makes the film almost revolutionary. Laurent is a relatively new director yet exhibits tremendous control of the pacing, crafting an agonizingly slow build while never letting the drama lull, not even in the oft-tricky second act. The visuals are equally impressive, especially when framing usually reserved for action films finds its way into the more disquieting moments.
Still, it’s impossible to sidestep the fact that the very core of Breathe is a whole lot of paperback Freudianism of the kind we’ve been seeing in the cinema (and popular literature and mass media and everywhere else) for several generations. That some of the moments that hit these clichés the hardest are accompanied by creaky cinematic tricks like slo-mo just emphasizes the point that Breathe, as accomplished as it is, doesn’t break as much new ground as it should have.
With terrific pacing, impressive visuals and tremendous performances, Breathe is a fine film, one with a few flaws but which still proves that director Mélanie Laurent is a talent to watch.