Greg Cwik on Melanie Laurent (Breathe)
Friendships can be nebulous, fleeting, difficult to define; each one is a perpetual work-in-progress that comprises a meandering and random sequence of moments, a medley of memories which only makes sense when considered much later. Friends come and go, they eddy, they can suck us into maelstroms, leave a void when they’re gone. We try to give a narrative architecture—discern or construct a definite beginning, middle, and end—to friendships so that they appear clearer and more certain. French director Mélanie Laurent’s Breathe (2015), which chronicles the inauspicious start and disturbing end of the kinship between two high school girls, is a film that speaks to our need for this structure. It captures better than any recent film the precipitous highs, the agonizing lows, and the confusion pervading such an intimate alliance, the betrayals and the cruelties only possible when you know someone really well, when someone trusts you, when someone lets you destroy them. It understands the anxiety of trust, the pain of vulnerability, and makes literal the smothering feeling of being trapped in a Sisyphean cycle with a toxic friend.
Laurent has directed three features and one nonfiction feature, which won a César for Best Documentary in 2015, but she is still most known in the U.S. for her role in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), as the vengeful Jewish cinema owner and member of the Resistance who, after her family is slaughtered in the film’s languidly tense opening scene, burns down her movie theater, with Hitler and the rest of the Nazi high command trapped inside. Eminently photogenic, with the emotive eyes of a classic Hollywood starlet, she is the focus of some of that film’s most indelible images: standing before a window in a vermilion dress, looking glamorous and dauntless, her pallor and dress juxtaposed with a Nazi flag, as David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” blares with anachronistic glee; or the projection of her face against the rising brume of the burning theater, laughing maniacally. Laurent’s work as a director has earned far less acclaim here. Breathe, her sophomore feature, played at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema Festival in 2014, and had a brief run in New York at the IFC Center the next year, but garnered little attention despite modest critical appreciation. It concerns a friendship that turns quickly abusive, irreparably dangerous. It depicts, with assiduous attention to detail and an empathetic melancholy, a difficult and disorienting time of adolescence. It finds the beauty and brutality in those mundane and formative moments that become lifelong memories.
It begins with a simple medium shot of feet lowering from a bed as day breaks outside. Charlie, a high school student, comes downstairs to find her parents fighting. She takes the bus, meets up with her best friend, talks about boys. There are laughs, orotund chortles, petty gossip. In an early scene, Charlie’s teacher elucidates to an attentive class on Plato’s notion of reason and emotion, what he calls gut, the dichotomy of which is the epitome and core of all relationships, platonic or romantic. He essentially lays out one of the main themes of the film: how reason, the undeniable but often undesirable splinter in the mind, is often usurped by feelings, guts, which compel and command regardless of logic. Love is insolent, that most painful and uncontrollable of emotions. Breathe concerns a young girl who must learn to reconcile her perfervid and unprecedented feelings with logical reality.
Into Charlie’s life comes new girl Sarah. She is cool, chic, smart; with her wide eyes and lips that pull into an enticing smile, she is beautiful, stylish, more arresting than the plain Charlie. Her introduction to the class interrupts a math lesson. She knows the answer to an equation that has befuddled the class jokester, and helps him solve it while the teacher’s back is turned, making a first impression that immediately establishes her as someone to be admired, trusted.
The first third of the film is mostly made up of a fluid series of vignettes, those brief, fleeting moments that define a friendship. Breathe moves at a quick pace, with scenes lasting just a few minutes, and the friendship is established with economy and empathy. For the first few scenes, cinematographer Arnaud Potier uses handheld shots, imbuing the images with a sense of instability; he places Charlie as far to the sides of the widescreen compositions as possible, and throughout the film captures faces in the gleaming, reflective surfaces of windows. Laurent focuses on subtle details, and finds the poignancy in diurnal familiarities: Charlie’s white boots juxtaposed with Sarah’s black ones; the way Charlie’s dress blends with the sinuous waves of the sea, or Sarah’s floral print stands in contrast to the chiaroscuro shadows enfolding her; the empyrean sunlight washing over the wavering stalks of wheat, and ethereal glimpses of faces caught in glass in the background of shots, or the beckoning undulations of a body dancing in slow motion. Laurent’s use of slow-motion is at once entrancing, yet steeped in sorrow and longing. Dancing with Sylphlike grace and an alluring insouciance, Sarah feels like an unobtainable object of unrequited desire, both the girl Charlie wants to be like, and, perhaps, the girl Charlie wants. Charlie’s relationship with Sarah, tinctured with a faint romantic feeling (a kiss, initiated by a drunk Sarah, is followed by a slap, leaving poor Charlie flummoxed), is reminiscent of both her parents’ marriage and her mother’s friendship, and one sees in the friendship between Charlie and Sarah a conflation of the two. When Sarah comes to Charlie, her face battered and bruised, saying her mother has never hit her before, the two seem to rekindle whatever ineffable connection they had, ameliorating the problems that afflicted them and abraded the relationship. Like her mother, Charlie forgives. Yet the next day at school, Sarah reverts to her aloof, cool persona, acting as if nothing had happened.
Laurent displays an undeniable, restrained dexterity behind the camera. There is, late in the film, a beautiful but unshowy long take, formally simple but profoundly revealing, that exemplifies the unalloyed and assured prowess of her direction. As Charlie follows Sarah home, the camera, skulking outside like a voyeur, flush with the wall, slides leftwards, following Sarah as she enters. The apartment is a sickly, infected-looking place, with sallow lighting and barred windows. Sarah’s cackling, alcoholic mother begins to berate her daughter; when Sarah locks herself in her room, her mother pounds on the door as Sarah intones, “Stop it, stop it, please stop it.” It’s the only moment in which Sarah, so cool, so chic, has been vulnerable so far, the moment when her persona gives way to the anguish of reality. The camera continues sliding to the left, revealing Charlie standing just to the side of the window, her face contorted into a look of horror and befuddlement.
Later, at a party, Charlie confronts Sarah, who stands alone, leaning against the wall, smoke billowing from her mouth. Charlie sees an opportunity: she says that she knows why Sarah is so mean; she says she'll keep the secret between them; she says she isn't mad anymore. Sarah threatens to kill her. Charlie is left outside alone to contemplate and brood as Sarah, arms raised in feigned triumph, assimilates back into the mass of quivering bodies. The truth brings about the end for Charlie and Sarah. Their friendship—built on a foundation of false pretenses and lies and unreciprocated desires, on the unspoken needs of two young girls who come from broken homes—turns toxic, with Sarah transforming into (or perhaps being revealed as) a bully, scrawling “Charlie gives sodomy for free” on the school walls, gossiping, disseminating secrets Charlie shared in confidence.
Breathe understands the pain of platonic rejection, of feeling alone even when you’re in the company of a friend, someone about whom you care, and whom you’ve trusted. It’s a loneliness that degrades one’s self-esteem, the friction between friends abrading the formerly good feelings. Friendships, like romantic relationships, are rooted in trust, in a mutual willingness to become vulnerable. It’s only when you know someone, when they let you know them, that you can inflict the most profound damage.
Every critic has his or her darlings: the films they deem underappreciated or misunderstood, films they want to champion and herald and to which they want to bring a bevy of new fans. There’s a sense of excitement, of fervor and pedagogy, when one shares a film with fresh eyes, brings to it new attention and ardor, extols its virtues with genuine love. For me, Breathe is such a film. I think, perhaps, its depiction of a toxic friendship, at once so specific in locale and culture and yet so universal is redolent of my own injudicious decisions, my own failed amities. Breathe doesn't do anything profoundly different than other films concerned with similar subjects, and its ambitions—formally, thematically—are mild, but the sincerity with which Laurent approaches her subjects is rare and beautiful, as is the unwavering and earnest care for these characters that’s so vivid in every frame.