“Passion is harmful when it becomes excessive”
There’s a lot of mirroring happening in Mélanie Laurent‘s sophomore film behind the camera Respire [Breathe]. Thinking it heavy-handed wouldn’t be impossible, but I’m not sure the story can be told otherwise. Granted, a philosophical discussion in class about passion foreshadowing events to come just as a biology video bears resemblance to current state of affairs around two-thirds in could have been excised. But the similarities between Charlie (Joséphine Japy) and her mother Vanessa (Isabelle Carré) cannot. We need to see Mom’s codependence in taking Dad (Radivoje Bukvic) back despite psychological abuse and cheating to understand Charlie’s reactions upon finding herself under similar duress. The question is whether or not the soon-to-be eighteen-year old will take her own advice once the suffering becomes too unbearable to stand.
Laurent and co-adapter Julien Lambroschini (from Anne-Sophie Brasme‘s debut novel written when she was just sixteen) take special care to ensure these relationships are depicted with authenticity as far from over-board melodrama its ilk usual possess as possible. They could have easily gone this route from the get-go as we meet Charlie’s parents arguing in the kitchen—Mom sobbing at the sink from jealousy and pain while Dad goes about making eggs, nonplussed by the conversation and confident he’ll exit unscathed. It’s so matter-of-fact that we feel Charlie’s hatred when declining a ride to school despite the act unfolding without theatrics. This small act of defiance provides solidarity in that neither woman needs his help. He can leave and never come back and they’ll be okay.
Charlie has lived her life with this creed from the beginning even if her young mother (pregnant at age eighteen) couldn’t. She’s shy, studious, and responsible: best friends with the girl across the street (Roxane Duran‘s Victoire) and more than happy laughing with a close-knit group of confidants devoid of rebellion. Who else would the teacher want to pair newcomer Sarah (Lou de Laâge) with upon her arrival? Charlie will catch her new classmate up in no time and perhaps be a calming influence as the first person to interact against. It’s the opposite that occurs instead, however. Sarah takes a shine to Charlie’s innocence and nestles her under her wing of at-ease cool. Shortly after a brief montage showcasing their bonding, the two prove inseparable.
While we notice Charlie’s growing affinity and wonder whether her love for Sarah goes beyond their current platonic union, getting a bead on the latter is more difficult. Sure she seems too good to be true, but that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be trusted. The stories told to disarm her new neighbors are funny, inspiring, and possessed by the perfect amount of heartfelt sorrow. Sarah’s mom is in Nigeria on a peacekeeping pilgrimage so she’s staying with an aunt she hopes to avoid whenever possible. It’s this arrangement that sets Charlie’s invite for her to join them on a little holiday vacation by the water in motion. Vanessa needs an escape from the revolving door of her husband and the girls are excited for fun away from home.
This trip becomes the turning point in their friendship because Sarah has nowhere to go. Charlie can’t avoid seeing who she really is—emotionally inconsistent, selfish without fail, and blameless to a fault. One second she’s touchy-feely, the two thick as thieves, and the next she’s distant, angry without just cause. Charlie’s out of her depth, uncertain what she’s done to deserve the cold shoulder and desperate to turn it around. She’ll do anything for Sarah, the ambivalence and sometimes-intentional hurt returned only making her want to move closer to discover a solution. While this dynamic is tragic when it comes to Vanessa’s marriage, it’s exponentially more dangerous to someone lacking the maturity adulthood brings. Charlie literally starts gasping for air, drowning in a pool of unchecked emotion.
An easy comparison would be to a Single White Female type thriller, but Breathe is more complex than adrenaline rush terror. What transpires between Charlie and Sarah is worse in its apparent lack of malicious intent beyond school-age drama. A fracture in their trust is created by the former’s actions even if she was pushed to that extreme by the latter’s ever-changing attitude. Even so, the fact that she uncovers a lie confirms Sarah’s duplicity. But that’s only to someone thinking rationally outside of the strong connection forged through weeks of friendship. To Charlie, the changing atmosphere and eventual adversarial switch in their relationship is her fault. She’s the cause of her own pain, the spiteful words etched into school property earned through her deception.
We see it in Japy’s eyes, the young actor delivering a powerful performance of emotional extremes. The abject joy oozed from her pores when the girls were close, leaving a deep-seeded depression after their separation. Her Charlie’s asthma attacks increase as panic sets in, but she cannot return the malice endured. She cannot seek revenge for something she believes stems from her actions. Her friends Victoire and Lucas (Louka Meliava) look to help as Gastine (Thomas Solivéres) and Delphine (Camille Claris) go one step further to tell know she cannot lie to them and pretend nothing’s wrong. Charlie has so many people who love her and yet she only feels Sarah’s distance. And just like with her mom, any return on Sarah’s part is welcomed with open arms.
Laâge is the perfect counterpart to Japy’s sweet despair. Her Sarah’s a hardened shell of spitfire hiding the fearful, worthless child her mother’s made her believe she is. The way she withdraws when things don’t go her way—events reinforcing the low self-worth she tries to ignore—is understandable, especially in view of Charlie and Vanessa’s love. So when she digs into Charlie, making herself the victim, we know it’s a defense mechanism. But Charlie doesn’t. The knife cuts deep, pushing her closer to the breaking point her mother has long avoided. Watching what this wholesome kid turns into is a tragic state of affairs with devastating results. We all must exit the roller coaster eventually; some before it stops.
Laurent and cinematographer Arnaud Potier excel at constructing gorgeous, detail-oriented framing throughout with impeccable blocking and smooth focal point transitions without the need of cuts. As such, the final shot’s captured relief will chill you to the bone.
[1-3] Joséphine Japy and Lou de Laâge in BREATHE