An obsessive friendship between two teenage girls unfolds with equal amounts of tenderness and terror in “Breathe,” a modest but acutely observed and affecting adolescent portrait that suggests a chaste “Blue Is a Warmest Color” by way of “Single White Female.” In her second outing as director (following 2011’s “The Adopted”), actress Melanie Laurent brings a sure, sensitive hand to tonally tricky material and draws superb work from relative newcomers Josephine Japy (“Cloclo”) and Lou De Laage (“Jappeloup”). Properly positioned, the pic could connect with younger female auds when it opens in Gaul Nov. 12. Offshore fests and arthouse distribs should also take note.
“Passion is harmful when it becomes obsessive, which is most of the time,” observes an enlightened high-school teacher early on in “Breathe,” amply setting the stage for much of what follows. One of those students listening semi-attentively is 17-year-old Charlene (Japy), who goes by Charlie and for whom school is a welcome escape from home, where her bickering parents (Isabelle Carre and Rasha Bukvic) are on the verge of divorce. Then, as if on cue, Sarah (De Laage) arrives, with that rush of exotic sophistication that new girls can bring to stagnant small towns. Sarah has, she says, been dispatched to live with an aunt after the political climate became too unstable in Nigeria, where her mother works for an NGO. And if it all sounds a bit too romantic to be true, well, Sarah has a brash confidence that sells the illusion, like a skilled actress inhabiting a role.
The two girls quickly become inseparable, and Laurent (who also adapted the screenplay, with Julien Lambroschini, from Anne-Sophie Brasme’s acclaimed YA novel) excels at pulling us into their intensely private world. But when Sarah is invited to join Charlie, her mom and some other family friends on a seaside holiday, subtle fissures begin to form in their airtight bond. At the sea, Sarah lusts wantonly after the older Esteban (who’s clearly more interested in Charlie’s mom), and then, just as quickly, shifts her attentions to a handsome young pilot, leaving Charlie in her chilly wake.
There’s a dash of Tom Ripley in Sarah, and perhaps a bit of the adolescent mischief maker from Francois Ozon’s recent “In the House,” who insinuates himself with a seemingly picture-perfect family by seeming to be everything their own son is not. But as skillfully embodied by De Laage, there’s an inner sadness to Sarah, too, that makes her impossible to dismiss as a mere sociopath or emotional vampire. It’s a feeling that only intensifies when Laurent finally reveals the truth about who Sarah really is and where she comes from — a scene staged in one breathtaking traveling master shot that goes from room to room along the outside of a house, and which suggests that Laurent’s directorial gifts are hardly limited to her work with actors.
Indeed, the small but impressive triumph of “Breathe” is how much it makes us feel complicit in Charlie and Sarah’s claustrophobic codependency — so much so that, when Sarah disappears from Charlie’s life for a stretch, you long for her return, despite knowing that it’s probably not the best idea. Laurent demonstrates a vivid sense memory for the circumscribed world of adolescence and its outsized feelings of jealousy and heartbreak and alienation (from family/friends/self) — feelings that flow through “Breathe” as though Laurent herself were there only yesterday.
It helps, of course, that Laurent’s two leading ladies were there only yesterday (in real life, Japy is 19 and De Laage 24). De Laage is especially good at capturing all Sarah’s complexities and contradictions — the deep-set need to hide herself from the world while simultaneously craving to be the center of attention. And Japy is very much her equal as the movie’s unstable nerve center, calm and slightly withdrawn on the surface, roiling with violent emotions just beneath. That these characters are traveling on an inevitable collision course is perhaps obvious, but it’s to Laurent’s great credit that the film’s climax (tipped much earlier in Brasme’s novel, which unfolded in flashback) feels at once startling and earned.
Working with much of the same crew as on her previous pic, Laurent opts for a nicely naturalistic, understated look and feel, invaluably enhanced by d.p. Arnaud Potier’s ace widescreen lensing.