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Film Review: 'Breathe'

Emily Mae Czachor |
September 28, 2015 | 10:30 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Director Melanie Laurent on the set of "Breathe" (Courtesy of Film Movement).
Director Melanie Laurent on the set of "Breathe" (Courtesy of Film Movement).
After a delightfully coy and alluring stint at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, French actress-turned-filmmaker Mélanie Laurent’s sophomore directorial feature, "Breathe" (“Respire”), is gracing U.S. theaters in a nationwide release at the end of the month.

Loosely based on Anne-Sophie Brasme’s young-adult novel of the same name, "Breathe" is a gravely psychological coming-of-age story that crafts a raw, authentic portrait of a simultaneously enchanting and suffocating friendship rapidly hurdling toward obsession. The story centers on sullen good-girl, Charlie (Joséphine Japy), whose quiet fire and crumbling family life catapult her into somewhat brutal codependence with the exotic and beguiling femme fatale, Sarah (Lou de Laâge). The film—both expertly acted and directed—explores the toxic subtleties of seduction and manipulation and masterfully employs a minimalist aesthetic to enhance its thematic eeriness. 

Laurent, whose role in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 Academy Award-winning war film "Inglourious Basterds" propelled her into Hollywood’s elite sphere of acclaimed actors, says that the idea for Breathe has been germinating for over a decade. 

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“I read the book when I was 17 and the author was 17 too,” said Laurent. “And I was in shock when I read it, so I called the author and I said, ‘I want to make a movie about that story.’”

Though Laurent’s youth and lack of industry contacts initially prevented her from creating the film, the idea resurfaced both suddenly and fervently soon after the success of her directorial debut, "The Adopted." “I had kind of forgotten the story,” she said. “But it came back like a flash a few years ago and I was sure that it would be my be my second movie.”

Teaming up with fellow French actor Julien Lambroschini, Laurent adapted the story into an intricate screenplay without actually re-reading the novel. By crafting the script entirely from memory, she is able to quite effortlessly weave the most impactful elements of the story’s core with her own fresh and creatively rich interpretation. In many ways, it is the subtle complexities of the script that drive the film’s journey. Laurent strips away much of the stylistic choices in the novel and instead extracts and plays on the rawness at the heart of the story.

“My memories [of the novel] were just of a very, very cruel relationship of love and likeness,” she said of the convoluted relationship between Charlie and Sara. “And then everything changes, and you become addicted to someone, and that love becomes a nightmare.” 

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The chemistry between the two leading actresses, Japy and de Laâge, is palpable. The intimacy in the cinematography magnifies the smallest interactions between them – barely audible whispers from beneath a bed cover, a glance under the flashing strobe lights of an underground club, Sara’s kiss pressed too long, too deliberate into Charlie’s cheek – and the result is nothing short of electric. Despite their relatively young ages, both women exhibit a certain maturity—a deep understanding of one another and the nuances of the characters’ relationship—that enraptures viewers. The audience is catapulted into their lives; we feel the heat, the anxiety, the manipulation, the fear. 

Laurent lauds the actresses for their brilliance on-screen and credits both their natural chops as well as their real-life closeness for the superb acting in the film. She remembers their scenes progressing so smoothly that she only ever needed to film one, two or three takes (a phenomenon not often encountered in filmmaking) before it was complete.

“They amazed me every day,” she said of both Japy and de Laâge. “They were just so perfectly the part. They were very professional and natural. I could film them forever. I miss filming them a lot.”

Laurent solidified a bond with both actresses when she invited them to stay with her—just the three of them—at a secluded country home in France for three days. Laurent asked them to spend every moment immersed in one another and learning as much as possible about each other’s lives. 

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“I asked them to sleep together, brush their teeth together and spend hours to talk about life and guys and love stories and anything,” said Laurent. “I wanted them to be so close so they could just act everything.”

And the cleverness of the cinematography only serves to further illuminate the story. From its opening, we are offered intimate, specific snapshots that delve into the smallest, most personal moments of Charlie’s life. The film begins with a tight of Charlie’s feet, pale and slightly unkempt, as she slides out of bed in the morning. We feel an odd sense of fascination with her before we’ve even seen her face. 

“What I love about this job is when you start to just put emotion and logic in every shot you do,” said Laurent. “So, for me, the first shot of the movie is the most important thing.”

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The film continues with this influx of sensory overloading, visceral shots that flood the screen and begin to paint a rapidly constructed story. The way in which the film employs light, sound and a minimalist aesthetic that is at once unrefined and inexplicably gorgeous serves to inundate the viewer with as much in-depth information about the characters and the plot as possible. 

“In this one minute [at the start of the film], you know exactly what sort of character you have. And I think after ten minutes, you have all the story of the love story and the relationship,” said Laurent. “I wanted to do something very fast, like: she met her, she fell in love, it’s great, she’s addicted. And everything’s going to be a mess after that.”

Watch the "Breathe" trailer below.

Reach Staff Reporter Emily Mae Czachor here.



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