Decided to redo my initial review of the film after a recent re-watch, eliminating any reference of the venue I saw it at and focusing more on its individual merits.
In the past decade or so, there’s certainly been no shortage of great coming of age dramas and/or ‘teen’ films. In regards to the handling of youth oriented storylines, film has come a long way since the ‘too cool for school’, heavily stereotyped portrayals of teenagers in the films of John Hughes and his many imitators during the period from the late 80’s all the way through the mid 90’s. Now-a-days, most filmmakers seem to have moved onto exploring darker, more true to life portrayals of life as a teenager, along with the occasional high school comedy to shake things up.
Perhaps this is could be attributed to a difference in the ever evolving worldviews which separates the generations of directors; or rather it shows the difference between middle aged writers/directors trying to capture the essence of life as a teenager, and younger filmmakers who have a better memory of their younger years, and can therefore draw from experience to create more engaging and realistic narratives. With that in mind, actress turned director Melanie Laurent’s second feature Breathe is another noteworthy addition to the ever growing catalog of impressive 21st century coming of age films, and deserves credit for spinning a story that touches upon one of the least-represented romantic pairings in cinematic history.
Breathe (or Respire, if going by its original French title) offers ample evidence of the growing confidence and skill of Melanie Laurent as a director. Adapted from the bestselling French novel by Anne-Sophie Brasme, published in 2001 when the author was just seventeen, the film depicts turbulent adolescent emotions and insecurities with an understanding that could only come from living through similar experiences in one’s own lifetime. And whether you approach this from the angle of a coming of age film or not, Breathe is nonetheless a dizzying experience in its depiction of a seemingly fleeting instance of romance between two young women gone miserably awry, resulting in a story that transcends typical teenage girl drama and winds up taking a serious emotional and psychological toll on both of those involved.
In the leading role of Charlie is Josephine Japy, who bears an almost certainly intentional resemblance to director Melanie Laurent, and here plays one of the most sympathetic female protagonists from the past few years. Within this role, she is 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, spending the majority of the second half being pushed around by her former best friend (and maybe something more?) Sarah, played equally well by Lou de Laage.
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 their feelings for one another, followed by the only instance of Charlie and Sarah physically acting upon these impulses.
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 recently released 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 the film’s young heroines. And from a technical standpoint, Breathe 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 entire sequences vividly highlighting plot elements such as Charlie’s increasing sense of isolation, and the impending separation of Charlie and Sarah, as well as contributing one hell of an effective long-take at the midway point.
Despite not having an official release in North America just yet, outside of making rounds at film festivals and having a recent online release,Breathe is a film that’s absolutely worth seeking out. It offers a fresh and challenging perspective on the subjects of young romance and exploring one’s budding sexuality, as well as featuring two breakout lead performances at the center. Hopefully it gets a more prominent release soon, or I’ll distribute the damn thing myself.