Is there a more overused opener in recent cinema than the back of someone’s head lensed with a bouncy handheld camera? In her debut feature, “Until I Lose My Breath,” Emine Emel Balci uses lots of such shots, along with tight closeups showing part of her protag’s head, but what’s revealed inside that head isn’t especially interesting. In fact, the lead in this intimate drama about a young woman, equal parts naive and spiteful, is essentially a mixed-up character more victim of her own stupidity than dupe of society. Presumably, that wasn’t the desired message. “Breath” will turn up at a few fests, but there’s little here for auds to hold onto.
There isn’t one scene in “Breath” without Serap (Esme Madra), an immature late teen who works as a runner in a sweatshop while she waits for her trucker father Mustafa (Riza Akin) to give up the road and find a job in Istanbul. It’s pretty clear he’s not interested in being tied down, but Serap’s painful emotional dependence on a largely absent father who barely seems to care is her most prominent personality attribute.
To be fair, her options are limited. She lives with her sister (Pinar Gok) and brother-in-law (Yavuz Pekman), yet both treat her appallingly, searching her backpack and pockets each night to check whether she’s hiding money from them (it’s one of the few truly disturbing scenes). She really is hiding cash, keeping her secreted savings at work, with the goal of making a down payment on an apartment she could share with her father.
But Mustafa keeps accepting more trucking jobs, lying to Serap by saying each long haul will be the last. Unable to take the humiliation at her sister’s anymore, she crashes with co-worker Dilber (Gizem Denizel), but when things there become tense, too, she starts sleeping in the depot of the garment factory. Granted, she has few choices, yet the ones she makes come from a place of senselessness and malice. Why would anyone be friends with this sullen, sallow-faced woman? Why would Yusuf (Ugur Uzunel), a delivery man for the factory and the only semi-pleasant person here, give her the time of day? When she sees him flirting with Dilber, she rats on them to supervisor Sultan (Sema Kecik), resulting in a further limit to her options.
It’s likely Emel Balci views Serap as a product of her environment — motherless, a father with no sense of responsibility to his children, a sister cowed by her husband. She has no role models, so she hasn’t the skills to sustain even a friendship. Yet by making her so unsympathetic, and denying her anything but destructive agency, the director-scripter places a barrier between audiences and the character that’s practically impossible to breach.
Keeping the camera constantly on Serap was likely conceived as a way of forcing viewer identification, and while Madra, in her first leading role, demonstrates solid acting chops, the forced proximity feels oppressive, and not in a good way. Lensing is trapped in an expected indie aesthetic, meant to feel gritty and raw but instead eliciting a “seen it before” response.