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Breathe

Sarah Ward

Actress turned filmmaker Mélanie Laurent's second film, a thriller about teenage friendship, is a work of insularity and artistry.
Breathe

An obsessive female friendship may seem like an on-screen coming-of-age ritual, alongside escaping into an intense bond with a peer to cope with troubles at home, and grappling with the first flourishes of attraction; however Breathe (Respire) both understands and cares little for clichés. The feature’s circumstances are wrought from the recognizable, as is its emotion, but its observation of the connections women build with each other, its atmosphere of tension and its immersion of the audience in a youthful mindset remain wholly its own.

The strain of seeing her parents struggle and split weighs on Charlene (Joséphine Japy, My Way) – or Charlie, as she prefers – leaving the 17-year-old short on self-confidence, fumbling to find her place, and fighting for breath, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively. Then Sarah (Lou de Laâge, Jappeloup) arrives at school to finish her final year, inserting her vivacity into Charlie’s shy seclusion. The newcomer’s influence looms large, the polar opposites drawn to each other. First, the pair is inseparable. Then, time – and a seaside summer vacation – spent in close quarters sparks a different set of sentiments. Eventually, complications tint their relationship with caution.

In her second effort as a filmmaker, actress turned writer/director Mélanie Laurent (The Adopted) makes a convincing case for the blossoming of Charlie and Sarah’s camaraderie. The duo flit through an assemblage of typical teen moments, yet Laurent never lets their exploits – smoking in the bathroom together, putting on make-up and going out dancing, holding each other’s hair back after over-indulging, passing notes in class, giggling in the back seat on a road trip, and sharing histories and secrets – feel routine or commonplace, nor comparable to the standard teen movie treatment.

Instead, it is insularity she favours, bringing the viewer in to blossoming closeness, rushing towards a new co-dependent status quo, then tearing it all down as the fickleness of finding release through another person is exposed. Indeed, Breathe takes the mantle of an intimate insight into an inner world. It’s a impression made palpable not only in the nuance of the script co-written by Laurent with actor Julien Lambroschini (French TV’s Main courante) and adapting Anne-Sophie Brasme’s novel Respire, but in the mixture of nostalgia and naturalism that dictates the imagery.

Aping the two halves of the tale, stylistic choices enact the thin line between love and hate through aesthetics; witness the shifting of focus and the emphasis on aural dissonance, submerging the feature into a specific perspective and emotional palette, for example. First cinematographer Arnaud Potier (5 to 7) favours warm colours that conjure reminiscence, like telling of times gone by, even though this is a fictional story. Swiftly, the visuals change to coldness and starkness with the shift in mood. The technique of the film’s construction is one of artistry, the editing by Guerric Catala (Fonzy) and the music by Marc Chouarain (Serial (Bad) Weddings) similarly replicating Charlie’s point of view.

With Japy and de Laâge, Laurent matches a picture delicately painted with fine-tuned performances, her leads contrasting by design yet complementary in contributing to the complexity of Charlie and Sarah’s friendship. The force exerted by the latter on the former is perceptively conveyed, as is the internalising of the former’s woes due to the latter’s presence. Small but pivotal turns by Isabelle Carré (Looking for Hortense) and Roxane Duran (Age of Uprising: The Legend of Michael Kohlhaas) as Charlie’s mother and former best friend respectively prove equally astute, their roles demonstrating the parallels that radiate in the film’s layers of characters and relationships. That’s the lasting insight Breathe affords as it turns familiar beats into a sensitive, singular effort, and one that leaves an imprint in its beguiling build up as well as its stunning conclusion.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Breathe (Respire)
Director: Mélanie Laurent
France, 2014, 91 mins

Perth International Arts Festival – Lotterywest Film Program
perthfestival.com.au
24 November 2014 – 12 April 2015
Breathe season: 9 – 15 March

Alliance Française French Film Festival
www.affrenchfilmfestival.org
Sydney: 3 – 22 March
Melbourne: 4 – 22 March
Adelaide: 5 – 24 March
Canberra: 6 – 25 March
Brisbane: 13 March – 1 April
Perth: 19 March – 7 April
Byron Bay: 9 – 14 April
Hobart: 16 – 21 April

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, Flicks Australia, Metro Magazine and Screen Education. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay