Charlie (Joséphine Japy) is a 17-year-old French provincial student whose face can seem impassive one moment and suddenly animated the next. Her wide, ear-to-ear smiles carry a caution, as if they were saying, “Who knows how long until the next delight comes?”
In the Cannes festival standout “Breathe,” the increasingly compelling psychological thriller from co-writer and director Mélanie Laurent, Charlie is a girl in need of rescue from the uninspiring life she inhabits. Her mother, Vanessa (Isabelle Carré), is separated from her philandering husband and often acts not much older than her daughter (whom she had when she was 18). Charlie’s best friend (Roxane Duran) is sympathetic but mousy.
Charlie proves no match for the new transfer student, Sarah (Lou de Laâge), who sweeps into class with a self-confident gusto that knocks Charlie for a loop. The two quickly become inseparable: Charlie prizes Sarah’s rebellious shenanigans while tempering, ever so slightly, her new friend’s wild side.
At first I thought “Breathe” would play out like a Gallic version of “Mean Girls,” but it’s more troubling than that. We can see, even if Charlie can’t, that this friendship is headed for the rocks. Sarah claims that she is living with her aunt because her mother is still stationed as a volunteer worker in Nigeria. We wait for this bubble to burst.
Accompanying Charlie on a family vacation to a seaside trailer park, Sarah briefly latches onto a local Spaniard, leaving Charlie momentarily bewildered and bereft. Charlie reveals to Sarah that she is a virgin, and Sarah seems amused, though not altogether shocked, at the news. They share a quick, drunken kiss, which resonates with Charlie but not Sarah, for whom this is just another fanciful provocation.
The dynamic of the girls’ friendship is worked out in a way that seems intuitively and psychologically right. The intensity belies a certain desperation in the relationship: Charlie wants far more emotionally from Sarah than Sarah is capable of giving. Laurent gets at the ways in which spirited friendships, especially between young girls, can morph rapidly into something much more unsettling.
With her co-screenwriter, Julien Lambroschini, Laurent doesn’t make the mistake of overhyping the mounting dread. The intensity is best served by their methodical, low-key approach. When the film reaches its climax, we are both stunned and totally prepared for what happens. Laurent, best known as an actress for her roles in such films as “Inglourious Basterds,” works extremely well with her cast. For Japy’s performance to work, we have to recognize, as we certainly do here, Charlie’s banked fires beneath the prim facade. De Laâge has the showier part, but she doesn’t telegraph her dissolution, which makes it all the scarier.
Not that we weren’t warned. In Charlie’s first classroom scene, her literature instructor offers up this pensée: “Passion is harmful if not controlled.” Grade: B+ (This film is not rated.)