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 my out — one single shot to completely frazzle me 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 Respire (a drama) 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 girls. 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.
The physical presence of Sarah 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’s frustration becomes channeled through 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, and Charlie needs the attention of admiring male classmates. A loyal ex-boyfriend continues to admire Sarah, but a painful sexual experience established a safe distance from such another awkward event. Charlie theorizes about love but Sarah acts.
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 watches 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, Respire works on various levels thanks to the cinematography of Arnaud Potier, the polished direction of Laurent and the magnetic charisma of the leads. Both Japy and de Laâge dominate every scene — so much, in fact, that I was concerned about Respire 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 their friendship takes a shocking turn, Charlie and Sarah 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 Respire that ultimately prove to be the sharpest.
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 Respire encapsulates multiple dimensions of personal suffering.
Respire is part of ITunes’ “My French Film Festival” and currently available to rent for $1.99.