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Breathe (Respire) [AFI Fest 2014]
Other // Unrated // November 8, 2014
List Price: Unknown [Buy now and save at Fandango]
While it may not seem like it, creating a story wrapped around the struggles in high school can be an incredibly daunting task. Relationships are constantly changing, and the drama can be difficult to replicate in a non-generic fashion. Writer/director Mélanie Laurent and co-writer Julien Lambroschini have crafted something truly captivating and impactful in their adaptation of Anne-Sophie Brasme's novel. Breathe is an outstanding experience that burrows deep underneath the skin, and absolutely refuses to emerge.
Following 17-year-old Charlie (Joséphine Japy), a best friend is found in a new student by the name of Sarah (Lou de Laâge). Charlie discovers a sense of confidence, and ultimately happiness, as the two girls become inseparable. Sarah practically becomes a new member of Charlie's family, which had been eroding before Sarah's arrival. When Sarah becomes tired of Charlie, their friendship takes a dark turn from which they may never recover.
The first order of business for Laurent and Lambroschini is to immerse us in the world of Charlie. She has a rough family situation, where her parents constantly fight, even right in front of her, with the father being especially terrible to Charlie's mother. Being the introverted young woman that she is, she keeps her emotions bottled up. The key theme of passion is explicitly expressed through a class lecture at Charlie's school, as it's explained that passion is an involuntary feeling that comes from the gut, which is why we call it "having the guts." This passion is primary presented through the relationship between Charlie and Sarah. It's truly a special experience to witness the development of such a dear friendship, as they continue to trust one another more and more, but it simply doesn't remain this way.
This isn't entirely out of the realm of reality when it comes to high school friendships, especially when psychological warfare begins to emerge. As we reach the second half of the film, we're introduced to a few Mean Girls-esque plot beats. However, it's much more heart-breaking here, as we genuinely hurt for Charlie, as she consistently tries her best to reach out to Sarah. Even after all that she has done, Charlie refuses to act on her emotions, as she still somehow views Sarah to be practically a member of her family. However, Laurent and Lambroschini's screenplay isn't completely absent of humor. In fact, it puts a spotlight on it in certain scenes, which prove to be authentically and fittingly funny. Most of this comes from Charlie's naive personality meshing with Sarah's extremely loud persona. Once we get into the bulk of the bullying, the remainder of the running time shifts to a much more serious tone.
While some of the high school drama is effective, other bits of it spend way too much time on it. There's a point where it begins to feel more like a bullying compilation, rather than a natural progression of Sarah's actions getting worse. This time could have been utilized better by progressing on what's left of Charlie's friendships, especially that of her previous best friend. It quickly addresses her, and then shifts back to the bullying. This largely feels like a loose end that doesn't entirely make sense. The third act feels the need to make up for lost time, as it quickly tries to quickly tie up some of these loose ends, making it feel a bit rushed. Fortunately, Breathe manages to dig itself back out of the hole just in time for a truly intense finale that holds a certain power that will stick with you long after the credits are done rolling. Truly a shocking, yet entirely fitting conclusion. Even if the second act lost you a bit, the third one will pull you right back into a state of utter immersion.
The performances are absolutely integral to the feature's success. Mélanie Laurent directs two young talents that will leave you breathless. Joséphine Japy is accurate and exact in the role of Charlie. There's a sense of restraint here that truly delivers a typical introverted teenager, yet we're still entirely on her side throughout the picture. Lou de Laâge is great as Sarah. This is yet another brilliantly believable performance that aids the picture in getting under our skin. When Japy and Laâge are together on screen, we're entirely convinced of this friendship that we just know isn't going to last. While the screenplay lent a hand, the acting is largely what drives this feature. Without a believable pair of portrayals, Breathe would most certainly fall apart into shambles. It's with these marvelous performances that we get the chance to truly become immersed in the story, and the world in which Charlie lives in.
This might be Mélanie Laurent's second time in the director's chair for a feature film, but she delivers a unique visual flair that would lead any unsuspecting moviegoer to believe that she is a visionary with years of directing experience. Laurent experiments with the use of long takes, as she heavily relies on the ability of her lead actresses to keep the scene moving. Perhaps one of the most striking scenes is one where their friendship begins to take a turn for the worst, and Charlie walks into the ocean, which transitions into a massive shot that makes our lead seem so small in comparison to her environment, as she's surrounded by a "sea of troubles." While the film has a concise vision, Laurent knows when to utilize a layer of grain in the picture in order to provide a gritty atmosphere amongst an otherwise more polished presentation, much like the relationship between the two girls. This is furthermore supported by the sound design, especially as Charlie begins having asthma attacks, as she fights to control her breathing. Without the need of any intense music track, the scenes are intensified by an increase in heavy breathing that gives the scene a sense of urgency.
It has become nearly impossible to find a film about high school that doesn't follow many of the genre clichés that the coming-of-age films have come to be. Breathe utilizes the intriguing themes of self-control, confidence, and friendship, but with a dark spin on things. Laurent incorporates a genuinely likable character with an eerily uncomfortable tone that you just can't shake off. The end of the second act has its issues, but the third act picks elevates itself, and pulls us back into this truly well-crafted film. When the ending hits, you realize that the feature is about something completely different than what you imagined. Breathe is an unsuspecting triumph in nearly every way. Highly recommended!
Breathe will be playing at AFI FEST 2014 presented by Audi on November 8 and November 12.