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Teenage girls yearn to connect. It's an impulse that is so strong that if one is left outside the charmed circle of belonging the whole world can fall apart. It's like being banished from a very powerful cult. Who you are depends on how you are perceived. Betrayal and manipulation, occurring beneath parental notice, is savage. Mélanie Laurent's second feature, "Breathe," based on a popular YA novel, understands the addictive sensations of a new friendship, its thrilling swing into merging, and its dizzying plunge into hurt and rage. It's a confident and scary film.
When Sarah (Lou de Laâge) first appears in school, she carries with her the self-aware glamour of the "new girl." She ingratiates herself immediately with everyone in school by whispering the correct answer to a kid stumped at the blackboard in math class. She smokes cigarettes from Nigeria and talks about her mother who works for an NGO in Africa. In gym class, she leaps onto the balance beam, standing suspended in the air, with one leg stretched out behind her, a vision of stillness and self-confidence. In the pack-mentality of high school, Sarah is an individual. It's seductive.
Shy asthmatic Charlie (Joséphine Japy) is thrilled when Sarah seems to choose hervas a best friend. Charlie's home life is upsetting. Her parents (Isabelle Carré and Radivoje Bukvicon) are so engrossed in breaking up, getting back together and then breaking up again, that they barely pay her any attention. Charlie and Sarah spend hours on the phone together, sneaking cigarettes in the school bathroom, going out dancing, their involvement so hermetically sealed that it is as though no one exists on the planet but the two of them.
There are danger signs early on. Sarah, with a breezy air of plausible deniability, drives a wedge between Charlie and her childhood friend Victoire (Roxane Duran). Watch how she does it during a scene when the three of them walk home from school. You almost can't catch her at it. Then, on a weekend trip with Charlie's family, Sarah pursues the guy interested in Charlie's mother. There's something ruthless about it. De Laâge is riveting all around, but is most compelling in those moments when she is not the center of attention. She goes entirely flat, waiting, waiting for the spotlight to turn her way again. Once the equilibrium is destabilized, Charlie starts to flail. Instead of backing off, she clings. Both have something the other wants. The gaps in personality, confidence, circumstance, are filled by the all-encompassing presence of the other.
The film takes off once the honeymoon period is over. The real strength of "Breathe" is in the fact that Sarah is not villainized, although her behavior is often monstrous. Of course, she has secrets: her breezy conversation about her awesome selfless mother would be clocked by an FBI profiler as nonsense in about 2 seconds. Perhaps her lies are a survival mechanism. She eventually experiences Charlie's interest in her as intrusive, even though she had courted Charlie like a "mark" from the get-go.
Details interest Laurent as a director: the silences, the body language, the collage-aspect to teenage life (classes, homework, parents, parties, phone calls). Events are presented in isolated images: Charlie playing knock-hockey with friends; whispering on the phone with Sarah; Sarah and Charlie wandering through a field the air golden and peaceful. The story is linear (unlike the book, which is told in flashback), but the style is fragmentary, deceptively casual. There are a couple of stand-out shots, the most stunning being a long tracking-shot along the exterior of a building, where we see Sarah's home life through the windows as the camera passes by. Charlie's rage at being left out of Sarah's warm glow has resulted in stalker-like behavior, and that shot is a disturbing representation of it.
Japy, at first, seems to have the more cliched wallflower role. But there are details in the performance that show us otherwise: her deadpan expression as she approaches her unhappy home, the sense that rage is there in her, rage she has no idea how to handle. Being rejected by Sarah doesn't exactly bring out an "I won't be ignored, Dan" reaction, but it's close. She wants answers: Why is she "out" now? What did she do? Self-loathing is irresistible. de Laâge shows a masterful understanding of a fragile girl who has created a persona that works for her, helps her navigate. She is narcissistic and depends on the attention of others. She's brutal, but she can also be vulnerable, supportive and fun.
Watching events unfold is almost a despairing experience, bringing up feelings of "Why can't they work it out?", with the corollary being "Why can't girls stop doing this to each other?" Margaret Atwood's novel "Cat's Eye" is one of the most accurate portrayals of the viciousness of little girls, viciousness that is invisible to authority figures, and "Breathe" is in that pantheon. Women look at one another and know the score. The response can be one of empathy ("Oh my God, you do that too?") or it can be one of rejection ("You're like that, but I'm NOT.") Sarah's cutting observations on Charlie's behavior have truth in them, hurtful though they may be. Charlie does need to let it go. But Sarah gave her something she wanted, belonging, importance. She wants it back. The fact that Sarah has played her like a violin is incomprehensible to Charlie.
Cinema is filled with stories of intense and manipulative female friendships, friendships that sometimes tip over into folie a deux situations like "Heavenly Creatures" or "Don't Deliver Us From Evil". Women will stab you in the back. Women will steal your husband. Women will start gossip campaigns to destroy your reputation. Laurent knows all that, but never lets her story derail into cliche. This is well-observed stuff, the hysteria of a new friendship, and the moments when the abyss opens up, yawning underneath what once seemed perfect.