Gallic Girlhood in Mélanie Laurent’s Breathe

Film Respire

Breathe
Directed by Mélanie Laurent
Opens September 11

The two central characters of actress Mélanie Laurent’s sophomore directorial feature, Breathe, frequently appear divided by rooms or peering at each other through windows and doors. Charlie (Joséphine Japhy, appropriately winsome) is a high school girl living with her young mother and intermittently present father. When Charlie meets a new student, Sarah (Lou De Laâge, long-haired and pouty, recalling a Gallic Jemima Kirke), she is instantly intrigued. Sarah enters Charlie’s math class and sits next to her, and soon enough they’re inseparable, the free-spirited girl becoming a foil to the more timid one.

Charlie and Sarah fit the tropes of virgin and vamp, respectively, but Laurent brings welcome subtlety to their relationship, shooting them in close quarters as they do teen girl stuff. When they smoke a joint in a cramped bathroom, when Sarah puts makeup on Charlie’s face or holds back her hair while she drunkenly vomits, we feel as though we are there with them. When Sarah first feels slighted by Charlie, during an awkward encounter with a boy, we register the change in Sarah’s expression, and by turn, their relationship, before she even says anything. The film ends up taking a dark turn that in its extremity both is and isn’t expected. Breathe does not sugarcoat the potential cruelness of girls. The passionate energy of friendship twists into aggression but finds room for moments of calm. Laurent’s palette is filled with blues, browns, and grays, and a shot of Charlie and Sarah’s feet as they lounge together in bed would not be out of place as a teenage girl’s poster. In one particularly striking moment, Charlie, clad in a billowing blue dress, wades in water—a mythological looking girl on the precipice of change.

More than once, the film spells out its themes of passion and obsession through literal classroom lessons, such as an overheard science video discussing plants that need to be in close proximity to survive. Such heavy-handedness though, is not Breathe’s default mode of expression. Charlie and Sarah’s closeness, alluring and scary, a little bit sexual, but not entirely, is best expressed in all the images of them laying together, until they violently move apart, and we are left with Charlie’s crying face.

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