An accomplished young French actress, Melanie Laurent has managed to land English-language roles in such films as Denis Villeneuve’s “Enemy,” Louis Letterier’s “Now You See Me” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds.” But aside from her busy acting career, Laurent has also found time to step behind the camera with her sophomore film, the friendship drama “Breathe” (Respire), which screened May 17 in Cannes’ Critics’ Week and is already one of the most buzzed-about films playing in the sidebar. Based on Anne-Sophie Brasme’s eponymous novel, “Respire” is produced by Move Movie. Gaumont co-produced and handles international sales.
Variety: It took you a long time to write your first movie, was it an easier process to write “Breathe”?
Laurent: Yes, it took me three years to write my first movie and only three months to write the second. Writing the first one was a difficult process and I was taking acting roles at the same time. For my second film, I originally wanted to make a bigger movie but it got too complicated to put together. Then I remembered that book by Anne-Sophie Brasme that I had read when I was 17, I found it so compelling that it stayed with me throughout all these years. I started writing the adaptation with what I remembered from it without looking back at the book so that I used my imagination to fill the blanks; that allowed me to add some plot twists and characters that were not in the book.
Variety: “Breathe” is one of the rare films about teenagers that feels very timeless, authentic, there’s no social media frenzy, for instance. What did you have in mind?
Laurent: I didn’t want to make yet another film about teenagers where social media is omnipresent, where you see everyone tweeting or on Facebook. My goal wasn’t to portray today’s teenagers but rather focus on your characters’ emotions, behaviors which are very universal.
Variety: The bond that unite those two young women, played by Lou de Laage and Josephine Japy, seems ambiguous at times. Is it a story about friendship or unrequited love?
Laurent: The film depicts the journey of Charlie (de Laage) who gets tangled up in a toxic relationship with Sarah (Japy), a young woman who’s clearly a narcissistic pervert. Even though she’s grown up with a father who is a narcissistic pervert, she’s so blinded by Sarah that she’s not able to identify that she’s one too and she falls into a downward spiral. I think that to a lesser degree we’ve all been caught in a self-destructive relationship whether with a friend, a lover or a parent.
Variety: Would you say it’s a personal film?
Laurent: Yes, out of the two films that I made, this one is the most personal for me.
Variety: As with “Les Adoptes” you managed to pull very strong performances from emerging or up-and-coming actors.
Laurent: It’s important for me to discover new talents. I had de Laage and Japy in mind when I wrote the script but when they met, we started rehearsing and it was a disaster, they didn’t feel comfortable. So I decided to go away with them and spend some time discussing, talking about the roles, the script. It was so liberating that they completely opened up and slipped into their character’s skins, started taking initiatives. It was amazing.
Variety: Did you encourage them to do any improvisations?
Laurent: I filmed over 20 additional scenes that were not in the script. They dived so deep into their roles that they would improvise great scenes, coming up with interesting ideas.
Variety: What are you working on now?
Laurent: My next project will be in French and English. It will take place between France and the U.S. It will be very different from what I did before, less intimate, more international-driven.
Variety: Are you already thinking of casting an American or British actor you’ve worked with, like Jake Gyllenhaal or Ewan McGregor, for instance?
Laurent: Or Bradley Cooper! He’s always been very supportive of my directing efforts. He said such nice things about my first film.
Variety: What’s happening on the acting side?
Laurent: I just wrapped the shoot of “Boomerang” with Laurent Laffite. I’m in discussion for a role in an English-language movie. “Eternity” (to be directed by Tran Anh Hung) has been delayed for a while so I don’t know if it will be my next film.