A few years back, I saw Melanie Laurent’s first film “The Adopted” at COLCOA in Los Angeles, not knowing quite what to expect, but hot off the success of “Inglorious Basterds,” sure that the film would be one of the top draws of the French film festival. Strangely, it wasn’t and it was one of those experiences where as the story – of a young woman who must come to an arrangement over the custody of her sister’s child after her death -unfolded, I’d occasionally scan the room, with that tinge of excitement, thinking, “Can you believe what we’re seeing?”
“The Adopted” never got U.S. distribution, in spite of Laurent being a rare French actress with North American notoriety, so I sincerely hope that a different fate awaits “Breathe,” her even more accomplished second feature that confirms her place as one of the world’s most exciting young writer/directors. A story told with exceptional grace and a palpable sense of danger, it details the friendship that develops between the 17-year-old Charlie (Josephine Japy) and Sarah (Lou de Laage), the new girl at her school who promises excitement at a time when the former could desperately use some as her parents pursue a divorce. Quiet and nonconfrontational, but clearly restless underneath, Charlene can’t help but admire the impulsive and adventurous Sarah, who tells tales of time spent in Nigeria where her aunt worked with an NGO until the situation became too dangerous. However, that turns out to be nothing compared to when the girls have a falling out.
There’s an obvious parallel to be drawn between Laurent’s first two films and Sofia Coppola’s, potent in part because of their aesthetic silkiness and an unusually sensitive touch with actors that brings out an intimacy in the performances that makes you feel as if you’re invading a private moment. In their eyes, while youth is beautiful, it’s forever tortured, as everything that’s said or done takes on all the importance in the world because of how small their world actually is. However, Laurent embraces a strong narrative core – perhaps owing to Sophie Brasme’s original novel – that makes the devastation hit even harder when things go south, beginning here when Charlie invites Sarah along for a family camping trip and Sarah thinks nothing of flirting with her mother’s friends, a trespass that metastisizes once Sarah begins to use what she’s learned from Charlie against her at school.
As uncomfortable as things get for the teens, Japy and de Laage have an ease around each other that leaves no doubt about their fast friendship, though each of the women contain multitudes. Over the course of the film, Charlie’s thoughtfulness can lead to festering resentment and Sarah’s spontaneity, prized by Charlie at first, soon looks a lot more like the ugly end of mercurial. There’s a richness to cinematographer Arnaud Potier’s work here that mirrors the depth of the characters, often times operating in various shades of blue and making evocative use of the natural light he lets in. Yet “Breathe” manages to carry the weight the story deserves without ever feeling overburdened by it, a testament to Laurent’s consummate understanding of her teen characters. Still, as a director, there’s no mistaking Laurent for anything but a grownup, demonstrating skill well beyond her years while exhibiting the vitality of one who’s young at heart.