BREATHE (RESPIRE) — Review by Courtney Howard

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breathe posterMélanie Laurent has proven herself to be a multi-faceted personality. Not only is she a superb actress, appearing in such films as Inglorious Basterds and Beginners, she’s also a skillful storyteller with her work behind the camera. Her feature length directorial debut, The Adopted (Les Adoptés), is tender and touching, bursting with earned emotion. It reminds us of the preciousness and fragility of life. I found myself haunted and moved to tears by its beauty and strength. Her sophomore feature, Breathe (Respire), is equally as feminine and authentic, but demonstrates far more assured filmmaking. Continue reading…

Teenager Charlie (Joséphine Japy) instantly becomes best friends with Sarah (Lou de Laâge), the new, rebellious cool girl at her high school. To Charlie, who is stuck in a claustrophobic home life she yearns to escape, Sarah represents everything she’d like to be: quick-witted, sly, smart and beautiful. However, this friendship that burns so bright at the start flames out when an inevitable (but never predictable) betrayal occurs. Charlie’s bestie turns into a bully. And the heartbreak is palpable.

Charlie’s stress and anxiety over this fracture in their friendship leads to a more sullen, withdrawn persona, taking whatever abuse Sarah is unfairly dishing out. The mental anguish physically manifests in a panic attack in the school hallways and an asthma attack on the track. She literally can’t outrun her crushing emotions. Charlie no longer allows herself to feel beautiful simply because she no longer wants to feel – period. She’s also deflated, forced to return to a miserable existence at home.

The emotional bandwidth Laurent taps into ranges from charming, to disarming, to completely unnerving – yet it continually feels right in line with a universal female experience. It pierces the soul. The way she and cinematographer Arnaud Potier harness light to color these characters is stunning. They capture the pair’s dreamy, lazy days and vulnerable confessions to each other, without any manipulation or pretentiousness. The nuanced visuals fuse perfectly with the narrative to contextualize Charlie’s unravelling world. All of this is most evident during the raw scene between the pair in the third act, where we see Charlie in the shadows – as if she’s in the dark about Sarah’s struggles during their brief patch-up. When Charlie lashes out at a classmate Sarah is clearly manipulating, Laurent goes handheld with the camera to emphasize the immediacy of Charlie’s flooding emotions. Sound design plays a crucial part of Charlie’s journey away from teenage innocence, becoming a deafening ringing in her ears in the final act. During her asthma attack, the sound turns inward as all we hear is her gasping for air.

Infused with magnetic, dynamic performances from the leading ladies, this is breathtaking filmmaking.

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