Nothing’s more effective at shaking a teen out of their monotonous high school routine than the arrival of a new student. That’s the stuff actress/director Mélanie Laurent’s sophomore film, Breathe, is made of: mystery and allure, with generous dollops of adolescent rivalry, sexual awakening and verbal abuse spooned on top. Think of Breatheas a distant European cousin to the fraught teen movies of Larry Clark as well as Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen, stories of imperiled youth, loneliness and volatile sentiment. It’s a film about unrequited love—not necessarily romantic love, but confused, ambiguous love, the kind of love that closely resembles a roller coaster ride and leaves people who feel it wrecked.
Breathe anchors its perspective to young Charlie (Joséphine Japy), the very picture of ordinary teenhood by anyone’s standards. Charlie lives with her folks in a sleepy French suburb that’s as quiet and nondescript as she is. Her mother (Isabelle Carré) argues with her father on the regular over matters of marital fidelity; she can only escape their skirmishes at school, where she keeps a low profile while enjoying minor but stable popularity among her circle of friends. They’re good kids, mostly, lovably raucous and totally safe, keeping in stride with the prevailing normalcy of Charlie’s life. But that normalcy turns out to be remarkably delicate: No sooner does out-of-towner Sarah (Lou de Laâge) join Charlie’s class than her mundane existence starts to splinter.
Sarah, returned to France after living in Nigeria with her own mother for several years, is everything Charlie isn’t. She’s spontaneous and worldly. She dresses chic and smokes Nigerian cigarettes. Distill all that into a single word—“cool”—and Charlie’s immediate fascination with Sarah requires no explanation. We empathize with her right off the bat, and Charlie’s classmates are almost as obsessed with Sarah as Charlie is. Guys like her. Girls want to be like her. Anyone who made it through high school probably knows someone like her, too, which ultimately means that Breathe’s dramatic flourishes are as familiar thanks to our personal experiences as they are because we’ve seen them on film before. We know the plot’s trajectory before the film leaves the launch pad.
So how can Laurent hope to freshen up subject matter this well-tread? What does it take to say something new with the teen drama archetype? Every filmmaker has their individual strengths, and Laurent’s happens to be her gift for coaxing her cast. This makes sense and should come as no surprise given her own acting background (Inglourious Basterds, Now You See Me), but the observation holds true even if it’s startlingly obvious. Japy and Laâge play both sides of two very, very different coins. They run between alternating ranges of feeling and present multiple faces from one scene to the next: Japy maintains a state of wounded subdual when she isn’t smitten, sulking, or enraged, while Laâge’s wild child spins the deadliest venom and the most cunning manipulation when she isn’t seducing Charlie—and the audience—with her rebellious allure, though it’s a seduction of the mind rather than the body: Breathe only gets as explicit as the dialogue allows.
Frankly, Laurent is better off for keeping Charlie’s desire simmering beneath the surface. Her restraint helps offset the explosive barbarity of the film’s climax. She’s so good at picking through the diplomatic tensions of female friendships that when Charlie’s bubble bursts and the movie takes a turn for the macabre, we don’t mind the change in tenor. (And besides, stories like this rarely end any other way than in tears.) If anything, the film and Laurent both struggle with hidden meaning: Charlie’s asthma unnecessarily lends physical manifestation of the spiritual suffocation she endures as Sarah’s bestie. We get the labored symbolism even before Charlie takes her first hit off her inhaler.
Over time, the comparison becomes comically blatant, but Breathe’s forced metaphor doesn’t dilute Laurent’s character study. We might question how much of herself she’s injected into the film, which adapts the first novel by French author Anne-Marie Brasme for the screen. Brasme wrote the book when she was 16: If the emotions run true and deep, we may cede credit to Brasme first, but there’s no doubting Laurent’s skills as an actor’s director. Breathe is a good film. As Laurent continues to refine her talents behind the camera, it seems more and more likely that she has a great film in her, too.
Director: Mélanie Laurent
Writers: Mélanie Laurent, Julien Lambroschini, Anne-Sophie Brasme
Starring: Joséphine Japy, Lou de Laâge, Isabelle Carré
Release Date: September 11, 2015
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65 percent Vermont craft brews.