'Breathe' ('Respire'): Cannes Review

Breathe Still Cannes - P 2014
Courtesy of Festival de Cannes

Breathe Still Cannes - P 2014

An impressive second film that features intelligent writing and several knockout performances.

The second directorial outing of "Inglourious Basterds" actress Melanie Laurent stars Josephine Japy and Lou De Laage and is part of the Cannes Critics' Week.

CANNES – A 17-year-old provincial French student is swept away by her friendship with the dangerous but oh-so attractive new girl in class in Breathe (Respire), the second outing as a director of Inglourious Basterds and Beginners star Melanie Laurent.

Laurent co-starred in her quirky and overly glossy first feature, The Adopted, but for her sophomore effort as a budding cineaste, she has chosen not to appear onscreen. Indeed, it would be difficult to image which role she could play in this loose adaptation of Anne-Sophie Brasme’s eponymous French literary sensation, written when the author was only 17 herself. Though the story has undergone quite a few changes, what’s intact is the novel’s grittiness and emotional honesty, which more than compensates for the occasional coming-of-age cliche. A Critics’ Week Special Screening, this French November release should see ample festival play as well as niche release opportunities in Franco-friendly territories.

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Lanky, dark-haired teen Charlie (Josephine Japy) is having a tough time at home, where her mother, Vanessa (Isabelle Carre), finds herself alone after the infidelity of Charlie’s foreign-born father (Rasha Bukvic) has come to light. Around the same time, a new girl joins Charlie’s class: the rebellious blonde Sarah (Lou De Laage), who moved back to France because the situation in Nigeria, where her mother works for an NGO, was getting too dangerous.

The two girls almost immediately hit it off, to the consternation of Charlie’s childhood BFF (Roxane Duran). When Sarah’s mom (Carole Franck) can’t make it home for the fall holidays, Vanessa and Charlie take her with them to a seaside trailer park, where Vanessa starts feeling a bit better when a handsome Spaniard (Alejandro Albarracin) starts taking an interest in her and Charlie and Sarah share a drunken kiss that, for Charlie, who’s still a virgin, suddenly makes a lot of unspoken feelings very clear, as the struck-by-lightning look on Japy’s face reveals.

Laurent co-wrote the adaptation with fellow actor Julien Lambroschini and the duo changed quite a few things from the original novel, including the exact nature of the rapport between the protagonists and the fact that the story’s not told in flashbacks but chronologically, a wise decision that allows events to unspool unburdened by the weight of possible future events and that lets audiences bond with an essentially innocent character that grows increasingly complex as the world around her does too.  

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This includes the subtlety suggested realization that Vanessa -- who doesn’t have all that many scenes but is still a fully rounded character -- and her daughter are really quite alike and that, though they can recognize the mistakes the other is making or about to make, they are unable to see the same mistakes coming in their own lives because for both, love is an irrational, almost all-consuming force.

Laurent also impresses here as a director of actors, with Japy (Cloclo) playing everything very small, though her thoughts are almost constantly readable on her pale face, and De Laage (Jappeloup) giving an appropriately mesmerizing, force-of-nature performance that initially manages to hide the complex layers of the character behind a tantalizing smokescreen. Carre (Romantics Anonymous, The Refuge) is also strong in a much smaller role, effectively enriching Japy's work by offering both support and hints of subtle parallels between the two women.

Though Laurent reunites much of the same below-the-line crew as The Adopted, the film looks radically different, with the washed-out colors and drab working-class environment a very believable backdrop for this story of tough emotions. Costume designer Maira Ramedhan Levi deserves special mention for her insightful work that visually suggests both who the characters are and how those around them see them, such as in a high-school party scene, bathed in blue light, where Sarah appears in a vampish red dress and Charlie shows up in a comical, almost ridiculous panda costume, with both outfits foreshadowing roles that’ll be played in the scenes that follow.  

Production companies: Move Movie, Gaumont Mely Productions

Cast: Josephine Japy, Lou De Laage, Isabelle Carre, Roxane Duran, Alejandro Abbaracin, Carole Franck, Rasha Bukvic

Director: Melanie Laurent

Screenwriters: Melanie Laurent, Julien Lambroschini, loosely based on the novel by Anne-Sophie Brasme

Producer: Bruno Levy

Director of photography: Arnaud Potier

Production designer: Stanislas Reydellet

Costume designer: Maira Ramedhan Levi

Editor: Guerric Catala

Composer: Marc Chouarain

Sales: Gaumont

No rating, 90 minutes