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Breathe (aka Respire)

Film Movement // Unrated // February 2, 2016
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted February 24, 2016 | E-mail the Author
At first, Breathe is a straightforward story about a new friendship between two high school girls, Charlie (Josephine Japy) and Sarah (Lou de Laage). Sarah is just starting at Charlie's high school, but there's a connection, at least on Charlie's end, from the moment they lay eyes on each other. Almost immediately, Sarah overtakes Charlie's longtime best friend Victoire (Roxane Duran), leading up to her inclusion in a family vacation with Charlie, her mother Vanessa (Isabelle Carre), and her aunt Laura (Claire Keim). In an unspected turn of events, possibly predicated on a single word, Charlie and Sarah's relationship turns toxic, in a shattering portrait of casual teenage cruelty.

Melanie Laurent is best known by American audiences as an actor, having starred in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. Breathe is only her second outing as director, following 2011's The Adopted, but the film packs a shattering psychological punch that builds with an impressive subtlety. Although the title (which relates to the movie in a number of ways, including Charlie's asthma) may seem like an easy reference point to use in summarizing the film, it's hard to describe the atmosphere of tension and emotional abuse that Laurent immerses Charlie in without using a word like "suffocating."

The nature of high school social cliques as they relate to young women are generally considered through the lens of comedy: Heathers, Clueless, and Mean Girls come to mind. Given the cushion that those films provide (even when honestly tackling the subject), it's startling and perhaps even more powerful seeing how Breathe depicts the casual cruelty that Sarah unleashes on Charlie. The presence of more open and aggressive insults (such as a seemingly endless amount of lewd graffiti that appears all over the school) turn the smaller microaggressions (a purposeful push past on the school's running track) into more powerful insults. Through a single action or statement, Sarah knows that she can destroy Charlie's day, and she revels in that power imbalance, which Charlie will only push against in her most vulnerable moments.

Although the film includes a number of other students, including Victoire and several other of Charlie's friends, as well as Lucas (Louka Meliava), a boy she likes, Laurent deftly moves them from the foreground to the background as the film goes on. The long friendship between Victoire and Charlie can be felt at the beginning, yet when she speaks to Charlie later in the film the characters feel worlds apart, a perfect recreation of the sensation of friends drifting apart. Charlie's journey is also paralleled by that of her mother, who remains in an abusive relationship with Charlie's father (Radivoje Bukvic), who comes and goes as he pleases and casually condescends to Vanessa and Charlie when he is around.

The only lingering question left by Breathe is whether or not the film properly fleshes out Sarah in comparison to Charlie. There is a thread detailing a complicated relationship between Sarah and her mother, but it ends up feeling more like an explanation or exploration of why Sarah turns on Charlie (in particular, why she takes issue with a specific word choice and the implication of less intimacy between them that it implies). The film is unquestionably about a young woman who is tormented by an abuser, and there is a risk in giving too much sympathy to someone who is being intentionally cruel, even if they're motivated by outside factors or their own failure to understand the impact they're having on their target. Still, there is room in which Laurent could explore how Sarah truly feels about Charlie (or doesn't) without assigning too much reason to actions that may have no deeper motivation.

Film Movement offers Breathe with artwork that follows the traditional "independent film" template, right down to the scrawled, imperfect font used for the title. It bathes the entire thing in an odd orange/red monochrome that makes all of the images on the case look the same. The art is packaged in a transparent Amaray case, with a note from Film Movement on the selection of Breathe and a very short interview with Melanie Laurent on the reverse side of the artwork that shows through on the interior. There is also a booklet advertising other Film Movement releases.

The Video and Audio
Breathe is presented in 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen, with a Dolby Digital 5.1 French audio track and removable English subtitles. As Film Movement's success is more dependent on each release being of high quality and their discs are generally low on supplements, some of their releases have been among the best-looking discs I've seen in the past few years. Sadly, Breathe is a little lacking in that department. The cinematography, by Arnaud Potier, ends up looking muddled during dark scenes, especially a pivotal party sequence in an underlit house with neon club lighting. It's not that the picture ever quite dissolves into serious compression issues, but it just looks as if some element of vibrancy or richness is out of reach for the transfer, a nuance to the film's earthy color palette that would bring it to life. Sound is mostly devoted to dialogue between the two girls, with the occasional atmospheric touch to emphasize Charlie's breathing problem. There is also a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track.

The Extras
There are two bonus features included on the disc. The one that pertains to the film itself are a series of interviews (9:37) with Japy, de Laage, and Laurent. Although this is a fairly short piece and filled with clips from the movie, the comments from all three are fairly substantial in covering their perspective on the film's story and the characters, as well as the experience working on the movie. Laurent in particular talks about the message she wanted to convey to teenagers, and the challenge of making sure her two leads' powerful emotions and the powerful emotions of the two young women her story is about didn't get confused or intertwined.

The other supplement is, of course, the bonus short film included on every one of their DVDs. The selection here is called Bonne Esperance (19:08), detailing the fragile and unexpectedly intimate emotional relationship that forms between a youth counselor (Celine Cesa) and one of her girls, a 16-year-old runaway (Amelie Peterli). The short is one of those that feels as if it calls out to be expanded into a feature, capturing some surprisingly lovely bonds between characters in a short period of time, but feel as if they've only partially been explored.

Trailers for Second Coming, Glassland, and The Dinner play before the main menu, along with a promo for Film Movement. Those trailers, plus trailers for The Nun, Apaches, and The Maneater can be found under "Film Movement Trailers" on the special features menu. An original theatrical trailer for Breathe is also included.

Although the parallel is only obvious because Laurent and Tarantino worked together, Breathe pulls off the same trick as Inglourious Basterds: utilizing a heightened or exaggerated story to reference and highlight emotional traumas people suffer in their everyday lives (and does so with less fanfare). Coming back to the title, "breathe" taps into not just Charlie's asthma, but the pace at which everything forms and then crumbles, and the weight that the lost and defiled intimacy she had with Sarah places on her chest. In one of Charlie's classes, the teacher and students argue that passion is a prison. Laurent follows through on this thesis with a heartbreaking intensity. Highly recommended.

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