Friendship can be intoxicating and in the case of Mélanie Laurent’s newest film Breathe, it can be dangerous.
Charlie (Josephine Japy) lives an ordinary life as a French suburban teenager. Shy at school, and having to listen as her mother sometimes has violent fights with her father, she’s instantly taken with Sarah (Lou de Laage) a new girl at school with a rebellious spirit. Their friendship becomes a road of self-discovery for Charlie as their friendship goes from playful to abusive.
Based on the novel by Anne-Sophie Brasme, Breathe is a confident and visceral second feature by Laurent. With director of photography Arnaud Potier, the film strikes the right balance between the first act of being a light, soft and hazily lit coming of age story, and the second half of being a tense ridden, hackles raised psychological drama. Potier’s photography is luminous in the moments where the two girls are high on happiness, and the blips of carefree teenage fun, where you feel like you have forever on your side and consequences are far away. Laurent shoots the impossibly camera friendly faces of Japy and Laage so that even when they’re simply staring morosely at one another, they’re always fascinating to watch, in part aided by the tremendous performances by the two stars themselves.
It’s easy to believe the relationship the two girls strike up due to the chemistry between Japy and Laage, both seeming at ease in one another’s breathing space, as well as having the ability to change their demeanor from innocent to manipulative on a dime. Luckily for viewers as well as the film itself, the two have more than simply their aesthetic, as they bring nuance to their roles so that neither one is either strictly in the right or the wrong. When Charlie and Sarah begin down the role of resentment and bitterness, we never believe Sarah is attacking Charlie out of sheer cruelty, and Charlie’s masochistic acceptance of the abuse is never simply because she’s written to be a meek character. From what is written she is both her mother’s daughter, one who runs to forgiveness, and maybe even, her father, who is quick to bite, quick to throw insults and try to get what he wants in any means necessary. It’s noteworthy that we see Charlie getting along more often with her father than her put upon mother, the one who is equally charmed by Sarah at the start.
The relationship between the two girls is obsessive, in turns affectionate and toxic. Charlie and Sarah instantly are drawn to one another, Charlie captivated by Sarah’s effortless cool factor, Sarah drawn in by Charlie’s ability to listen and love. They share breathing space, laughing and smoking in cramped bathroom stalls, dressing each other up to go out and smoke cigarettes and dance with boys and each other, and in Charlie’s case, she begins to blur the line of what is and isn’t appropriate for the two friends to share. Once the two go away on a camping trip with Charlie’s family, things begin to strain in ways that aren’t immediately apparent. Sarah flirts with a neighboring boy and Charlie’s jealousy stems less from the boy involved, and more through the time Sarah is spending with him instead of her. Charlie’s passive aggressive nature and emotional manipulation bothers Sarah, even if Sarah at first seems more like the antagonizing party, as she’s more outwardly provocative.
Laurent manages to so intricately capture what makes friendship between two girls in their teenage years so enthralling, especially when it’s someone like Charlie, used to being a wallflower type and then showered with affection without question by the outgoing and seemingly confident Sarah. With this film, accompanied with films such as this years The Falling, Girlhood, Sisterhood of the Night, Queen of Earth and Mistress America, it is great to see how many filmmakers are attaching themselves to female driven stories, particularly ones about relationships between women. Female directed stories in particular, such as this, show the intimacy and cruelty that women can demonstrate. What makes Charlie and Sarah so fascinating to watch isn’t just that they’re written into an exciting narrative (which they are) but that they are never, ever, one note in the way they are depicted. There is a moment in the film where you have to sit back and wonder who exactly has been the victim this entire time.
Shot with an eye for natural beauty, where suburbia, teenager’s bedrooms and campers on the lakeside are each shot with equal measurement and thought provoking intention, Breathe is one of the best films of the year, taking what on paper may seem like a simple, run of the mill story, and turning it into a close and critical look at the deteriorating friendship between two young women and all that falls between them.
Breathe is out in a limited release now.