When people talk about Blue Is The Warmest Color, they inevitably talk about its instantly infamous long-take sex scenes, pointing to the film’s literal physical rawness and body-centric honesty as being the essential hallmark of last year’s Film Most Likely to Make You Blush Awkwardly. Although Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or-winning feature certainly packed a big, sexy punch, underneath all that actual nakedness lurked emotional truths that extended far beyond its ill-fated love story. The film’s first act, a high school-set tale of tangled emotions and major metamorphoses, is chief among its greatest strengths, even if its relatively low-key charms were overlooked in favor of more full-bodied elements
Melanie Laurent’s gorgeous, twisted and confident Breathe is a natural second act to the early moments of Kechiche’s time-spanning new classic, applying the same level of care and consideration to the hormonally driven closeness of yet another pair of wild teen girls. Laurent’s stars – relative newcomer Joséphine Japy and the luminous Lou de Laâge – aren’t engaged in a sexual relationship, but the instant physical and emotional bond between the two high school students occasionally dips into gray areas. Trapped in a friendship that steadily becomes something ugly and abusive, Laurent’s leading ladies both turn in stellar performances in the director’s exceedingly well-crafted tale of teen obsession. Breathe never gives way to trite or over-the-top turns, and the result is a measured and highly refined examination of the power of passion.
Charlie’s (Japy) home life isn’t so great – as The Breakfast Club so accurately explained it in 1985, it’s “unsatisfying” – and she’s at the mercy of a pair of parents who are ill-equipped to deal with their emotions, least of all those of their teen daughter. Charlie certainly seems to get along much better at school, where she’s somehow managed to be both popular and smart, kitted out with a pack of pals she’s apparently had for a number of years. School is the best part of Charlie’s life – Japy noticeably deflates when it comes time to steer her character home at the end of the day – but that comfort is about to threatened in a spectacularly unexpected fashion.
Hip new kid Sarah (de Laâge) is an instant hit with her new classmates, bold and brassy and smart and bohemian and prone to performance, and when she’s assigned to sit next to Charlie, it seems as if both girls have hit the friend jackpot. Laurent imagines their quickly blossoming friendship by way of a snappy, smart montage that shows their intimacy with an economy of time and a maximum of feeling. But Sarah has secrets to spare, and as she gets ever closer to the trusting Charlie, they threaten to destroy both of them. Sarah’s insecurities (and the fallout from them) are neatly revealed over the course of the film, as a quick bristling at being referred to as Charlie’s “classmate” packs as much resonance as later confrontations that hinge on gut-twisting tension and physical violence. As Sarah’s emotions become increasingly volatile, her relationship with Charlie suffers and deteriorates, until an idyllic vacation permanently fractures them.
Laurent has an excellent eye for shot composition, and cinematographer Arnaud Potier’s crisp photography aids the director in creating an enviable set of gorgeous and memorable shots, and the film is consistently visually compelling. Laurent’s gifts aren’t just limited to specific settings or styles, as a scene involving the first reveal of Charlie’s puckered little face (steadily emerging from behind a giant coffee cup) is just as effective and interesting as a wide shot of her standing alone in the middle of a calm sea. Laurent and Potier also have an arsenal of tracking shots that they steadily deploy in startling fashion, including the reveal of the film’s twist (and we mean that loosely), which unspools by way of a long-held and exceedingly clever tracking shot.
The film falters a bit as it transitions from its second to third act, as Laurent and Julien Lambroschini’s script (based on Anne-Sophie Brasme’s book of the same name) struggles to make some necessary leaps to connect Charlie and Sarah’s ugly present with their dreamy past, but the final twenty minutes of the feature nearly erase those missteps, and it ends on a big, bold note worthy of such a richly rewarding feature.
The Upside: Excellent performances, extremely well-paced, confidently directed, emotionally rich, terrifyingly honest and damn good-looking to boot.
The Downside: A (wholly necessary) tone and narrative change in the film’s later half falters initially, and a large section of the third act is tasked with cleaning it up.
On the Side: Laurent’s film is based on Anne-Sophie Brasme’s 2004 novel “Respire,” and the feature takes some small (but well-tuned) liberties with the material, including the decision to tell the story in a linear fashion, whereas Brasme’s novel starts at its end. Don’t look up more information on Brasme’s book if you don’t want to be spoiled for Breathe. No, really.