“Passion is harmful when it becomes excessive,” a high school teacher tells his students early on in Breathe, underlining the theme of the movie you are about to see. One of his pupils, the vaguely depressed Charlie (Joséphine Japy) listens without paying much attention. Charlie is 17 and has reached that formative point in life where she has become dissatisfied with her rut but hasn’t yet done anything about it. At home, Charlie covers her face with her bowl of café au lait to drown out the bickering of her parents (Isabelle Carre and Rasha Bukvic), who are always warring and hurtling toward divorce.
At school, Charlie studies hard and passes the time with her friends, primarily her loyal but somewhat dull bestie Victoire (Roxane Duran). Then a transfer student, the beautiful Sarah (Lou de Laâge), blows into school with wild tales about a mother who stayed behind in Africa to volunteer as a social worker. She exudes a confidence and experience that belie her age. Charlie is immediately drawn to her: Here is the bolt of energy she’s been waiting for. Sarah, who is impetuous, free-spirited and fun, warmly befriends the virginal girl. In Sarah’s company, Charlie feels stronger, bolder, more complete. When Sarah tags along on a family vacation to the seashore, Charlie’s infatuation with her new friend is tested by jealousy and possessiveness, then strengthened with a quick, drunken kiss.
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Director Mélanie Laurent (best known in the U.S. for playing the vengeful theater owner Shosanna in Inglourious Basterds) allows us to see how differently her two protagonists view their relationship. Sarah is a flashy fast-talker who can quickly invest emotionally in someone else but never for long and almost certainly never all the way (she’s always looking forward to the next new thing). Charlie is the opposite, a girl who is careful about who she trusts and prone to obsessing when she makes a connection. She cares, and she expects others to care, too.
Their friendship is doomed from the outset, but not in the way you might think. Adapted from a young adult novel written by Anne-Sophie Brasme, Breathe is exceedingly French in its style (lots of loose, hand-held camerawork) and its approach to storytelling (instead of a plot, the movie is an accumulation of moments with consequences). But the film speaks to the common terrors of adolescents on the cusp of adulthood and frightened of what it might bring, ready to leave childish concerns behind but still insecure about how they are perceived.
Breathe is also about the great intimacy between girls that is an exclusively female domain (the closest boys can achieve is a bromance, but don’t even think about cuddling and stuff, bro). The bond can be so strong that it is sometimes confused for something else, and there’s a level of expectation this sort of friendship carries, too. Sarah may seem too drunk on life to care about much, but don’t you dare cross her or go against her wishes. And Charlie is the sort of person who seems destined to be buffeted by life, but even the most easygoing, gentle soul can break. Breathe is empathetic and humane — the movie cares equally about both girls, each damaged in her own way — and it ends with a brusque, unexpected reminder that kindness and patience can easily curdle.
Cast: Joséphine Japy, Lou de Laâge, Isabelle Carre, Rasha Bukvic, Roxane Duran, Carole Franck.
Director: Mélanie Laurent.
Screenwriter: Mélanie Laurent, Julien Lambroschini. Based on the novel by Anne-Sophie Brasme.
A Film Movement release. Running time: 87 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Vulgar language, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.