With all due respect to acclaimed modern horror films like The Conjuring and The Babadook, it’s been some time since a film legitimately freaked me out with one single shot, like that demon-baby crawling out of a television in The Ring. Quite unexpectedly, the French actress/director Mélanie Laurent accomplished such a feat with the menacing tone of Breathe (Respire) and a final scene that will forever be engrained in my mind.
Laurent adapted Anne-Sophie Brasme’s novel for her second feature, which highlights the intense affections and inevitable quarreling of a couple teenage women. The arcane Sarah (Lou de Laâge) plays the new girl in town, boasting a collection of worldly tales designed to impress. While one of her new classmates, Charlie (Joséphine Japy), appears more fragile and innocent, Sarah has no trouble inviting herself into a conversation or utilizing a penetrating gaze to draw attention in Breathe.
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The physical presence of Sarah in Breathe reflects the inner desires of Charlie, who can speak confidently about the literary aspects of passion but has little experience. Furthermore, her mother’s endless quarreling with an abusive father creates a psychological wall that only a trustworthy friend can help break down.
Unable to express her true feelings, Charlie directs her inner frustrations towards Sarah, who interrupts a phone call between her friend’s parents and temporarily eases the tension. Each girl has something the other wants: Sarah desires a strong female type to fill the void left by her mother; Charlie needs the attention of admiring male classmates. A loyal ex-boyfriend continues to admire Sarah, but a painful sexual experience establishes a safe distance from such another awkward event. Charlie theorizes about love in Breathe, but Sarah acts.
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After the initial excitement of new friendship slowly dissipates, Charlie finds that Sarah may not only be exaggerating the truth but also stealing away potential love interests. A weekend retreat highlights the mounting tension, as Charlie upsets Sarah by introducing her simply as “a classmate” and watching from the ground as her furtive pal enjoys an aerial adventure. Soon, both will realize the power of social embarrassment, but only one will take it to a most disturbing level.
Shot in Béziers, Breathe works on various levels thanks to Arnaud Potier’s cinematography, Laurent’s polished direction and the magnetic charisma of the leads. Both Japy and de Laâge dominate every scene — so much, in fact, that I was concerned about Breathe becoming a second-rate Blue Is the Warmest Color. That wasn’t the case at all, however, as Laurent investigates the effect of restrained emotions between two impressionable youths. Even when Charlie and Sarah’s friendship takes a shocking turn, they still find themselves speaking cordially in the same room, alone. Harsh words of anger may sting in public settings, but it’s the unspoken words of Breathe that ultimately prove to be the sharpest.
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Laurent offers a strong commentary about the onset of slow depression through high school bullying, and she picked the perfect moment to utilize Fun.’s “We Are Young.” The images are tremendous and the final moment of Breathe encapsulates multiple dimensions of personal suffering.
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.