Based on a novel by French author Anne-Sophie Brasme, director Mélanie Laurent’s Breathe is a story propelled by the mercurial friendships of teenage girls. The drama rises on the rich performances of its two leads, Lou de Laâge and Joséphine Japy. During their fast and intense relationship, Sarah (de Laâge) accuses Charlie (Japy) of playing the victim—but Sarah’s pretty good at that herself. There are no clear villains and heroes in the film until the tragic (no spoilers) climax.
Charlie, seventeen, seems to have a close circle of friends, including a boy who’s been sweet on her for years. Yet she’s instantly drawn to new girl Sarah, who whispers the solution to an equation to a boy who is fumbling at the whiteboard and also effortlessly poses on the balance beam. Sarah is the type of person whose confidence and magnetism make anyone on whom she showers attention feel special—and doubly crushed, as Charlie learns, when that attention disappears.
Viewers might remember Mélanie Laurent as the cinema owner with a vendetta in 2009’s Inglorious Basterds, but while she’s continued acting (Beginners, Now You See Me), she’s also worked steadily as a director. She most recently helmed The Mad Women’s Ball and is working on The Nightingale, based on Kristin Hannah’s novel.
Similar to Laurent’s 2018 feature Galveston, Breathe explores the unexpected connection between two unique characters—only here, the tension builds as we wonder how different they truly are.
Sarah, who says her mom works for a nongovernmental organization, seems exciting to Charlie and her friends. Having just moved from Nigeria, she is now living with her aunt. The reserved Charlie soaks up Sarah’s anecdotes and admires her rebellious spirit, especially when Sarah has the nerve to tell Charlie’s philandering father to get lost. Charlie’s mother, Vanessa (Isabelle Carré), keeps forgiving him because she doesn’t know how to do anything else.
Laurent shows the girls’ intimacy through a series of closeup and medium shots as they mirror each other’s gestures, giggle together at something that no one else finds amusing, and lie head to head, toying with each other’s hair. At one party where Sarah has loaned Charlie a shirt and fixed her hair and makeup, the two have a natural, affectionate rapport, dancing, smoking, and hugging like they’ve known each other for ages.
The screenplay, which Laurent co-wrote with Julien Lambroschini, gently draws us into their world and their slights, both real and exaggerated. Their friendship takes a turn after Charlie invites Sarah on vacation. Sarah becomes miffed when Charlie introduces her as “my classmate.” She also kisses Charlie, then laughs at her, something Charlie doesn’t take as a joke. When Charlie later thinks she catches Sarah in a lie, Charlie’s reaction is as understandable as Sarah’s cruel and bullying response.
Charlie deals with asthma, and as the knotty situation with Sarah escalates, she literally struggles to breathe. At times, we hear the ringing in Charlie’s ears, her heightened stress. Sarah’s not so special, someone says, noticing Charlie’s mood, even though Charlie insists she’s fine. Japy’s stillness shows Charlie’s ache to reconnect with Sarah, desperate to know if the other girl truly cares.
Sarah seems like a gregarious open book, but de Laâge shows she’s lonely, too, just better at hiding it. Neither girl is unsympathetic, which makes the ending of Breathe as sad and as startling as it feels inevitable.