A relationship between a hip new girl, Sarah (Lou de Laâge), and a guileless asthmatic, Charlie (Joséphine Japy), sprouts, grows, and rots in Mélanie Laurent’s hermetically sealed teenage drama, Breathe. It’s not Mean Girls, though Sarah is also a white girl returning from Africa on account of her mother’s NGO work, and it’s not Thirteen either, since it never veers far into rebellion or excess. Actually, Breathe plays out more like this year’s Effie Gray, starring Dakota Fanning, in which the sophisticated art critic John Ruskin sweeps a provincial girl (Fanning) off her feet, but quickly sheds his mask, putting Fanning’s character through an emotional wringer. Like Ruskin, Sarah, in Breathe, is the malicious and manipulative type, taking advantage of Charlie’s sympathy and neediness. With the help of cinematographer Arnaud Potier, Laurent’s film is far more absorbing, not to mention tense, than the middlebrow Effie Gray; Laurent composes stunning shots, wisely using handheld and tracking shots for maximum immersion. But, for better or for worse, Breathe is, aesthetically, a Michael Haneke movie about teenagers, where mood and cruelty take over. Although set in the present, or at least in 2013—”We Are Young,” by Fun!, serenades a New Year’s party—there’s a conspicuous absence of technology; for example, a bucolic setting dominates one section of the movie and, although the film looks like it was shot with a filter, the girls never snap selfies for Instagram. In fact, they rarely play with their phones. What’s more, there’s a lack of normal conversation. After the expository classroom scenes, there’s no more talk about art, philosophy, books, television, or hobbies, and any discussions about peers is purely plot related. Montages of Sarah and Charlie bonding deprive us of getting to know them on a deeper level. Though this is intended to build up the tension—and, at times, economy of language is used for great effect—the tight script becomes episodic, and Laurent’s uneasiness with naturalism backfires.
By Alec Julian & Carrie White