Film is full of clichés about female friendships. For every instance of reality in movies like “Mean Girls” and “A League of Their Own,” there’s a case of boyfriend stealing or mud-fighting that crumbles the feminine identity into ugly stereotypes. But the female-driven “Breathe,” directed by “Inglorious Bastards” star Mélanie Laurent, never delves into cliché, instead dissecting the intimacy and complexity of the relationships of adolescent girls.
“Breathe” opens on the timid Charlie (Joséphine Japy, “My Way”), a French teenage girl with parents who are too busy with a vicious cycle of breaking up and getting back together to pay any attention to her. Charlie’s suburban life is a drab series of school and childhood friends until a cleaving occurs. This cleaving, is her instantaneous connection with the beautiful and enigmatic new girl, Sarah (Lou de Laâge, “The Wait”).
Sarah and Charlie swiftly become inseparable. They are an unlikely pairing, as Sarah’s status as the epitome of a “cool girl” is acutely juxtaposed with Charlie’s awkward reticence. Sarah exudes confidence while she brags of living in exotic places with her saintly but absent relief worker mother. She immediately charms Charlie and breaks the rhythm of her monotonous life. But behind the cigarette smoke and mirrors of glamorous French clubs, Sarah has a streak of cruelty. It’s subtle at first — we see it in Laurent’s cinematography, the way the camera lingers on Sarah as she makes decisions about who to socially persecute. She ruthlessly ices out Charlie’s childhood best friend and perfects the powerful art of making Charlie feel like her best friend and the most important person in her life.
This dubious love is abruptly altered during a vacation to the countryside when Charlie makes the fatal mistake of introducing Sarah as a classmate, rather than a friend. After this rather small incident, their relationship transforms into the vacillating hot and cold state of frenemies. Sarah becomes gruesome in her malice because of the affection she so tenderly displays afterwards. We follow Charlie on the roller coaster of Sarah’s love, which takes both of them to places neither could have imagined.
Though more famous for her onscreen work, Laurent is no stranger to screenwriting and directing. “Breathe” is her second feature film. Her first, “The Adopted,” came out in 2011. Though similar in both style and subject matter, “Breathe” shows great promise for the actress-turned-filmmaker. Laurent’s distinctly French style of delicacy and focus on the small and regular aspects of life are honed in “Breathe” and create the sense of urgency surrounding the film’s toxic relationship.
But Laurent’s successful choices for “Breathe” aren’t limited to camerawork — they also extend to her choice of actors. Both performances — de Laâge’s seductive nature as the venomous Sarah and Japy’s transformation of Charlie from a naïve girl to a mysterious woman — are breathtaking.
“Breathe” is a film that is unafraid to redefine and break the schemas we have of teenage girls and their relationships. It doesn’t fit nicely into a category — there is humor and love, but there is also unbearable darkness that will get under your skin and make you think about it for days. In its beauty and grotesque harshness, “Breathe” captures the true essence of teenage girls and relationships.