Short Takes: Breathe

(Mélanie Laurent, France, 2014)

Set partly against the backdrop of an ethereal countryside in Southern France, Mélanie Laurent’s second directorial effort is a disquieting portrait of a high-school friendship gone off the rails. Fragile as a feather, 17-year-old Charlie (Joséphine Japy) finds refuge from domestic dysfunction in the company of new arrival Sarah (Lou de Laâge), whose free-spirited sensuality renders her the unanimous object of fascination. The girls become inseparable companions over the course of a delicately shot (if routine) montage sequence, but Sarah’s dark personality soon emerges and the nymph transforms into a merciless predator.

An actress with incredible emotional expressiveness, Laurent seems to have transmitted the same skill to her two leads, especially Japy who manages to convey her character’s inner turmoil with the single look of an eye. The film’s painterly aesthetics enhance the depiction of adolescent vulnerability, one memorable instance being an aerial shot of Charlie isolated in the vast blue sea. But as the two friends’ relationship begins to deteriorate, Laurent’s carefully weighed naturalism awkwardly takes on the trappings of a horror film.

The tonal shift is unexpected and yields operatic exchanges, such as a party scene in which Sarah threatens to kill Charlie if she reveals her carefully hidden secret. Even for a tale of untamed teenage obsession, Laurent’s psychological study loses its nuances once Sarah’s narcissistic perversion turns into mere provocation.