Film Review: “Breathe” — French Teens and the Sins of the Parents

Complex and nuanced, Breathe thankfully owes little to our current assembly line of teen angst flicks.

A scene from “Breathe,” screening as part of the Boston MFA’s French Cinema Series.

A scene from “Breathe,” screening as part of the Boston MFA’s New French Cinema Series.

Breathe (Respire), directed by Mélanie Laurent. Laurent. At the Museum of Fine Arts in the Harry and Mildred Remis Auditorium, Boston, MA, through October 9.

By Paul Dervis

Breathe could be subtitled Girls Gone Wild, French Style, if a flashy sense of irony is your thing. Although it is hardly distinctive in its exploration of teenage angst, the film certainly takes a different path to examining it…and its ending puts a provocative twist on an age-old tale.

Not to mention that the movie’s performances manage to be both subtle and understated while hitting their emotional targets hard and fast.

Winner of this year’s Provincetown International Film Festival’s John Schlesinger Award for Best Narrative (whatever that means), the plot revolves the ‘new girl’ in school who attaches herself to a somewhat shy senior who is dealing with serious dysfunction in her home life. To an American audience this set-up will sound wearingly familiar, but Breathe, owes very little to our current assembly line of teen flicks.

Joséphine Japy plays Charlie, a young woman grappling with an emotionally disturbed and violent father who seems to come and go as he pleases. Her mother, Vanessa, (Isabelle Carre) is deathly afraid of the guy, but she is even more afraid of losing him. She had Charlie when she was eighteen, an age her daughter is now approaching. Vanessa insists on being Charlie’s pal rather than her parent…the psychological price one pays for teenage pregnancy.

Enter into this strained menagerie Sarah, a self-proclaimed ‘exotic’ new student. She has just arrived in France from Africa, where her mother does important social work, much at the expense of paying attention to her flighty kid…or so Sarah claims.

Charlie and Sarah become fast friends…with a hint at something more. They become inseparable. Charlie abandons her own small clique and brings Sarah into her home. Vanessa grows to love Sarah as if she was her own child. They vacation together and Sarah begins to lay claim to much of what Charlie holds dear.

One other thing. Sarah lies. A lot.

One night Charlie follows her newfound buddy home and she finds Sarah, not living with an aunt as she has claimed, but grappling with her drunken, drug-addled mother, who is relentless in her abuse of the girl.

No Africa. No social work. Just a creepy home life where the windows are plastered with iron bars…a haunting prison for this young girl.

Charlie confronts Sarah, not to betray her, but to support her. But Sarah retaliates by turning on our heroine and smearing her name all over school. This sends Charlie into a deep funk, but she is unable to fight the rumors and assert her independence. Instead, she sea-saws back and forth in her dependence on Sarah, pulled in and then thrown out of her inner circle at this Machiavellian character’s slightest whim. Of course, the sadism parallels Charlie’s relationship with her parents; Sarah’s cruelty is the spitting image of her mother’s deeds.

The film’s quiet depiction of the isolation of teens is particularly striking, the sense that these kids are living their lives with no guidance. In contemporary films, even from Europe, you will look far and wide before you find one that displays kids smoking and drinking so constantly… a dissolution that is supported by their folks. In this world adults refuse to give their kids any direction; teens must navigate the waters of life alone….and, unfortunately, they inevitably flounder.

Lou de Laage plays Sarah with more than a hint of Mephistopheles. Her eyes are chilling when not infused with a ‘come hither’ smile. She is always ‘acting,’ but never goes over-the-top and tips her manipulative hand. It is easy to see how others comfortably accept her performance. She plays the perfect counter to Japy’s internal, depressed Charlie. She does her best work without using words, conveying her feelings of fear and need with body language that compels our empathy…she triggers nightmare memories of our own high school years.

The actresses make quite a team.

Director Mélanie Laurent, who based the narrative on a novel by Anne-Sophie Brasme, is a very visual director. For example, there is a scene set near the ocean, where one of the girls is staring out to the sea. The camera turns her into a silhouette, the sinking sun reducing her to a shade of gray — the character’s melancholy caught in a glance. Though this is only Laurent’s second feature film, she has an uncanny talent for creating beautiful images that also serve a thematic subtext.

Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.

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