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Offering an extremely literal translation of the term “high-concept,” Daniel Roby’s apocalyptic thriller Just a Breath Away (Dans la brume) heads to the rooftops of Paris, following a family of three escaping a deadly gas cloud that’s overcome the city below.
Well-directed and marked by a few strong set pieces, the film nonetheless lacks compelling characters and complex situations, with a textbook approach to the genre that feels more like a low-key Hollywood copy than something specifically French. Released at home in early April, the €9.5 million ($12 million) production has performed modestly thus far and could see some theatrical play abroad, with mild remake potential in the U.S.
Such a remake, however, would have to one-up predecessors like John Carpenter’s The Fog and Frank Darabont’s The Mist — two films that used similar concepts to explore small-town psychology and religious fanaticism, among other things, while giving viewers a fair share of scares. Here, writers Guillaume Lemans, Jimmy Bemon and Mathieu Delozier take a decent idea and bring it to mostly familiar places, focusing on two parents who will do anything to save their daughter, yet remain fairly uninteresting people themselves.
If anything, Breath, which makes excellent use of Paris’ low-rise topography, could be read as a warning sign against the dangers of pollution for a city that has seen an alarming increase in toxicity rates over the past years. At the same time, the phenomenon in the film is never explained in that sense, but rather as a bizarre event caused by an earthquake releasing deadly gas from below ground into the streets above.
When that happens, heroic dad Mathieu (Roman Duris) has just arrived back in town from Canada, where he’s trying to find a miracle cure for an immunodeficiency disorder that has left his pre-teen daughter, Sarah (Fantine Harduin), confined to a state-of-the-art plastic bubble. The hitch is that while keeping her life secluded to a few square meters, the same bubble offers Sarah the perfect protection when the smoke hits the fan and most of Paris’ population is decimated by lethal fumes.
While Sarah sits tight downstairs, Mathieu and his wife or ex-wife — the nature of their relationship is never clarified — Anna (Olga Kurylenko) flee to the top floor of their building, taking refuge in the apartment of a sweet old couple (Michel Robin, Anne Gaylor) that welcomes them with open arms. The vantage point offers them a view of a city enveloped in a gray haze that seems to be slowly rising, forcing Mathieu and Anna to find a solution before it’s too late. Another boondoggle is tossed in when the batteries powering their daughter’s bubble need to be recharged, resulting in a new race-against-the-clock scenario every 15 minutes or so of screen time.
The filmmakers throw the whole bag of tricks at the viewer — when the couple ventures outside, they’re attacked by a rabid dog; when they try to get their daughter a Hazmat suit, the laboratory they’re stealing it from blows up; all the oxygen tanks keep running out of air, etc. — in a tense if often predictable manner. But they do very little, if nothing at all, in terms of character development, leaving us with two people who have a single mission and nothing much else to say. Nor is there much in the film that comes across as unique to France or Paris — if it’s not the fact that everyone seems to fend for themselves and survivors hanging on atop Notre-Dame and Montmartre are already killing each other off. At least that feels like typically Parisian behavior.
On the craft side, Quebecois helmer Roby does a good job with a small budget, going big in the scenes where it’s needed while confining the majority of the action to a handful of apartments and streets. Lenser Pierre-Yves Bastard (JCVD) gets the most out of the different exterior sequences, especially when Mathieu climbs along the sunny rooftops in search of provisions or an escape route. (Where he learned his survival skills, we’ll never know.) Visual effects by Bruno Maillard (Heartbreaker) are also strong, making the toxic cloud seem menacing enough as it keeps creeping upward.
Duris (The Beat That My Heart Skipped) is an intense actor, but he can only give so much to a guy who lacks a real personality, while the Franco-Ukrainian Kurylenko (To the Wonder) often plays second fiddle until Anna takes on a pivotal role in the third act. As parents fighting to keep their child alive, the two are definitely convincing, but their characters lack depth while the pic ultimately lacks the emotional charge it needs. When the smoke clears, there’s not much left to see.
Production companies: Quad, Section 9, Esprits Frappeurs
Cast: Romain Duris, Olga Kurylenko, Fantine Harduin, Michel Robin, Anne Gaylor
Director: Daniel Roby
Screenwriters: Guillaume Lemans, Jimmy Bemon, Mathieu Delozier, from an original idea by Dominique Rocher, Guillaume Lemans
Producers: Guillaume Colbos, Nicolas Duval Adassovsky, Christian Larouche
Director of photography: Pierre-Yves Bastard
Production designer: Arnaud Roth
Costume designer: Nathalie Benros
Editors: Stan Collet, Yvann Thibaudeau
Composer: Michel Corriveau
Casting directors: Gigi Akoka, Valerie Espagne, Claire Andrieu
Sales: TF1 Studio
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