BY GARY M. KRAMER | Nominated for the Queer Palm last year at Cannes, “Breathe” is actress-turned-director Mélanie Laurent’s intense film about the fraught friendship between two high school girls in a French suburb. A potent bond develops almost immediately between Charlie (Joséphine Japy), a shy, smart, virginal teen whose father is leaving her mother, and Sarah (Lou de Laâge), a newcomer to the school whose mom is off working in Africa. Their friendship is something like a morning glory sparkler, where the magnesium burns brightly before snuffing itself out, but the film instead uses the symbol — shown in a classroom science film — of co-dependent plants that suck the life out of each other. There’s a very good reason why Laurent’s film is named “Breathe” –– and it’s only slightly related to Charlie being asthmatic.
When Sarah enters the school year in the middle of the semester, she breathes new life into the suffocating Charlie, giving her something, or rather someone, to feel passionate about. Charlie’s desires, to be clear, are less about sex than companionship. Still, the wallflower becomes free to inhale and embrace life.
A beautiful, confident, truth-telling stranger, Sarah is almost everything Charlie is not. De Laâge is completely seductive in her looks, body language, and demeanor. Sarah knows how to entice folks and make them feel more confident, and works her charms on Charlie’s mother (Isabelle Carré) and a handsome guy she meets as easily as on Charlie.
When passion saves before it destroys
Laurent uses nice visual cues to show the attachment between the girls. We see them lying on a bed, legs crossed at the ankles, mirroring each other. As they dance, drink, and smoke together at a party, we see their common desire, even their unity in trying to escape the loneliness and sadness in their lives.
When Charlie and Sarah take a holiday in the country with Charlie’s mother and aunt, the young girls’ relationship is heightened –– confidences are shared, as is a kiss, the only intimate physical contact between them. There are also moments of tension. Sarah feels slighted when Charlie introduces her to someone as her “classmate” not her friend, while Charlie turns sulky over Sarah’s flirtations with a guy at the campground. Sarah has ingratiated herself into Charlie’s more stable environment, but there is something insidious about it. When Charlie catches Sarah in lie, she discovers a secret her best friend is hiding,
When the girls return to school, betrayal soon becomes the basis of their relationship. Sarah begins to bully Charlie, and Laurent emphasizes the victim’s despair. As she dodges incessant harassing phone calls and sits down in a stairwell to catch her breath, we can see that Charlie mentally and physically overwhelmed by Sarah’s erratic behavior. When her former best friend Victoire (Roxane Duran) asks her why she puts up with it, Charlie’s non-response response speaks volumes.
Japy delivers a very accomplished performance in the film. Charlie’s nearly poker-faced expressions and increasingly withdrawn behavior belie deeper thoughts, and her pain is palpable. As she weighs forgiveness versus revenge, Japy makes Charlie’s transformation from awkward teen to someone galvanized to act credible.
The power struggle between the two frenemies makes for delicious tension in the last act of “Breathe.” Viewers will be unequivocally on Charlie’s side, though it could have been interesting if viewers had been led to shift their sympathies back and forth. The film’s power lies in the characters’ inability to control their emotions. “Breathe” includes some knock-down, drag-out catfights — pretty much a given in films about female friendships, especially when things go sour — but the extreme bursts of physical violence are manifestations of genuine emotional rage. To her credit, Laurent depicts Charlie and Sarah’s escalating war as harmful, with matters culminating in a startling denouement. This smart, sharp film about female friendships is meant to leave viewers gasping. And it does.
BREATHE | Directed by Mélanie Laurent | Film Movement | In French with English subtitles | Opens Sep. 11 | IFC Center: 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St.; ifccenter.com