Natural, Formal: ‘Breathe’

There may be no human bond more powerful than the friendship between two teenage girls – which means, by the transitive property of adolescent hormones, that there may be nothing more powerfully destructive than the friendship between two teenaged girls. In the French-language feature “Breathe,” an adaptation of Anne-Sophie Brasme’s young adult novel, actress-turned-director Mélanie Laurent describes one of these relationships with a brush that, appropriately enough, is as beautiful as it is harrowing.

Charlie (Josephine Japy) is not having an easy time of it. Lovely in a mousy way, she seethes with a cringing resentment, especially when her parents – who are on the verge of breaking up due to her father’s infidelities – go at it while she bleakly maws her breakfast cereal. In other words, she’s ripe for an experience that will obliterate everything else. Instead of drugs or an eating disorder, she discovers honey-haired Sarah (Lou De Laage), a new girl in her class who exudes an enticingly subversive glamour. Wielding cigarettes and a perfect pout, Sarah announces that she’s moved back to France because Nigeria, where her mother still works for an NGO, has grown too dangerous.

From the beginning, something about Sarah seems too good to be true. But when she trains her gaze upon Charlie, her wide eyes seem irresistible. Soon enough, Charlie has ditched her lifelong best friend, the slack-jawed Victoire (Roxane Duran), as well as her maybe-sorta beau Lucas (Louka Meliava), so she may surrender fully to Sarah’s charms. Like all romances, this one begins intoxicatingly: The two girls chatter in an endless, happy stream, doll each other up, swap flasks and sweaters, and hold each other’s hair back when they vomit from drinking too much. But “intoxicating” quickly slides into “toxic,” as Charlie begins to glimpse a darkness in her friend that, alas, she finds equally seductive.

After Sarah’s mom fails to show up for yet another holiday, the girl tags along with Charlie and her mother (Isabelle Carré) as they head out to a seaside trailer park. There, Sarah makes out with Charlie, slaps her, and then flirts with Charlie’s mother’s new beau as well as Charlie’s love interest. In an effort to fill in the cracks she’s beginning to detect in Sarah’s veneer, Charlie trails her when they get back home, only to discover that the latter girl’s living situation is far worse than she’s disclosed. In turn, Sarah, who feels she has a lot to lose if her true background is revealed, leads a school-wide campaign to ostracize Charlie that escalates until their mutual antipathy becomes physically dangerous.

Brasme’s novel is told in a series of flashbacks, but Laurent, who co-wrote this screenplay with fellow actor Julien Lambroschini, builds this narrative with a straight-ahead chronology – a wise decision that allows us to lose Charlie’s innocence alongside her. Laurent’s direction is also straight-ahead – deceptively so. Perhaps the better word is naturalistic, as her unfussy approach feels like a gentle rebuke to the showboats who have helmed the films in which she’s acted (Quentin Tarantino, Cédric Klapisch). “Naturalistic” also describes the girls’ personae. With her skittish ways and coltish limbs, Charlie is a willing pet for the less domesticated Sarah. Like most teenagers, they both are as close to their animal ancestors as they’ll probably ever be – especially when they strike at each other out of fear. Both actresses channel this rawness wonderfully un-self-consciously.

What “Breathe” does best is expose the warped mirrors that girls – and some women, too – provide for each other when no one else is observing them closely (or mercifully). Charlie calls out the bullshit fertilizing Sarah’s rosy bloom, Sarah goes after the bland self-pity lurking in Charlie’s suffering, and both girls echo their respective mothers’ pathologies in ways that become clearer as the film wears on.

Beneath the seemingly unstructured scenes of the girls dancing in clubs and dawdling at breakfast tables pulses a restraint borne of an admirable formalism. Laurent knows exactly what she’s doing. This is especially demonstrated in a long tracking shot following Sarah as she walks home that widens to reveal Charlie hiding behind a wall, watching her. It’s a shot that highlights the similarities and differences between the two girls as well as the burdens they individually bear. Despite the cartoonishness of most coming-of-age films, the stakes of adolescence are so high that they scarcely require embellishment. Laurent has done her subjects great justice by capturing them at their most unadulterated.

This was originally published in Word and Film.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy