After years of missing out and the repeated back and fourth of “ok-yes-definitely-maybe-probably not-too late” excuses, I finally made my way down to the Philadelphia International Film Festival. I was just visiting the area this past weekend and figured that I’d finally swing by the festival after years of hoping to get around to it. That said, I only had enough time for one film, and while there were a lot of heralded festival heavyweights I could’ve picked from, I figured I’d opt for something that – while it’s gotten my personal attention – hasn’t garnered much interest elsewhere and probably won’t be getting a legitimate North American release for quite a while. The film in question here of course being Melanie Laurent’s positively riveting teen drama Breathe, or Respire, if going by its original French language title.
The information pamphlet for the festival summarizes the film as follows: “Charlie is an average French suburban teenager, but when she becomes fast friends with Sarah, the rebellious new girl at school, she discovers there’s nothing average about how she feels in Melanie Lauren’t sexy sophomore film.” Sounds about right.
What that description didn’t have enough time for was to really go into detail regarding the story, which depicts a seemingly fleeting instance of young lesbian love gone miserably awry, transcending typical teenage girl drama and winding up taking a serious emotional and psychological toll on both of those involved. But if this film is starting to sound like a certain other French lesbian drama that came out last year and was recently reviewed on this blog, I can assure you that the similarities stop there. Putting aside the country of origin, subject matter, and age group of the protagonists, the two films hardly have a great deal in common (more on their similarities later). In fact, this film’s generally understated tone makes it more akin to something like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a similarly melancholic portrayal of young adults grappling with difficult life situations, rather than Blue is the Warmest Color.
In the leading role of Charlie is Josephine Japy, an alluring young French actress who, along with director Melanie Laurent, has created the single most sympathetic female protagonist of 2014, with Japy being able to express an extremely raw vulnerability with little more than her body language and facial expressions, instilling an immediate sense of empathy upon the viewer. However, that’s not to suggest that she is depicted as a flawless saint or a mere innocent victim herein. In fact, both of the leading ladies’ most defining internal character traits – Charlie’s near crippling shyness and Sarah’s rampant possessiveness – begin to manifest themselves externally over the course of the runtime, for better or worse. And while certain early details hint at Charlie’s lesbianism (her preference of the more masculine nickname Charlie over her birth name Charlene; the story of her underwhelming first sexual encounter with a boy), it becomes less of an abstract and a more identifiable part of her personality as the film goes on, which culminates in the most significant dialogic exchange regarding her feelings for Sarah, which also happens to be spoken in the English language.
Another thing the film manages to perfectly capture is the hotheaded, whirlwind nature of the excitement of being a part of a brand new friendship and/or romantic relationship (or in this case, somewhere in the middle). And if the aforementioned Blue is the Warmest Color was a depiction of a young woman’s self discovery of her own budding sexuality and subsequent first love gone all’s well, then Breathe offers the flipside version of that scenario. This could be attributed to it providing a similar narrative foundation, and almost identical first ten minutes to Blue‘s, before things peak early and begin to crumble quickly for our young heroines.
And from a technical standpoint, the film also impresses. For an actor turned director, Melanie Laurent has a striking visual sensibility, which proves to be perfectly matched for this subject matter, with several individual shots and/or sequences vividly highlighting Charlie’s isolation, and it also has one hell of an effective long-take.
Festival or not, Breathe is one of the single best films I’ve seen from 2014. Hopefully it gets a more prominent release soon, or I’ll distribute the damn thing myself.