Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Feb 18, 2015 8:17 pm 
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Poison girlfriends

The beautiful French actress Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds), who is now 32, debuted as a director with the 2011 The Adopted/Les adoptés, where the steadfast triumvirate of a mother and two daughters is rocked after one sibling begins a relationship with a man. Her sophomore effort leaves men out almost completely, focusing on two mothers and (primarily) on their two daughters, the latter in a decidedly dysfunctional relatinship, cruel on one side, unhealthily obsessive on the other, which can only end badly -- as it turns out, very badly. I could only miss the subtlety and delicate moderation of Céline Sciamma's debut feature Water Lilies, also about girlish obsession, exploitation and dependency, but far more within the realm of the usual and the plausible. Having just watched Jacquot's 3 Hearts, which uses Catherine Deneuve, her daughter Chiara Mastroianni, and Charlotte Gainsbourg as an iconic triumvirate, I was struck by how well 17-year-old Charlie (Joséphine Japy, Gray Souls, R-V 2005) fits into the tradition. Japy has Charlotte Gainsbourg's fashionably disordered hair and a sad little face that could be that of Chiara Mastroianni as a girl. And these teenage girls still brandish long cigarettes the same way Charlotte, Chiara, and Catherine do.

Charlie (nickname for the derided given name of Charlene) is an exploited victim who occasionally lashes out. She is shy, serious, and saddened by the breakup of her parents. Her father is only glimpsed; her mother, seen occasionally, is played by César winner Isabelle Carré (The Refuge, R-V 2010). The vivacious villain of the piece is Charlie's new friend Sarah (Lou de Laâge of Jappeloup, R-V 2013), a new arrival at her lycée, where for both of them their key final year "bac" diploma exam eventually looms, but emotional game-playing frequently seems to make study barely relevant. Besotted by Sarah's charm and confidence, eager for distraction from her fighting parents, Charlie ignores warning signs.

Sarah tells Charlie her mother is away for six months working for an NGO in Africa, which makes her appear both needy and glamorous. Sarah is vivacious and social and may bring out the shy Charlie. But in the social whirl of a summer vacation with other students in Spain, Charlie grows jealous and suspects her intimacy with Sarah may be fake. Sarah is everybody's friend and nobody's, and doesn't respect the privacy of the secrets Charlie has shared with her. Charlie is too needy and timid to find friendship elsewhere -- but not too inhibited to retaliate.

In his Cannes Variety review Scott Foundas suggests this film achieves the "small but impressive triumph" of making us "feel complicity in Sarah's claustrophobic codependency" so that when Sarah is away from Charlie, we "long for her return, despite knowing that's probably not the best idea." That's the understatement of the year. Sarah is utter poison for Charlie. One might have appreciated a fuller look at the motives and mechanisms of the two girls' behavior. There could have been more about the causes of Sarah's cruel and deceptive behavior and more motivation for Charlie's willingness to submit to it. Breathe provides intense emotional portraits, but some elements seemed tacked on or flimsy. "Breathing" is a theme relevant to both Charlie and Sarah, but it hardly seems integral to the film. One wonders both why no other students develop personalities and why there are no boys to enter the two girl's world; alternately, why such a handsome boy suddenly offers himself to the drab Charlie at the end.

My subtitle is an allusion to Emmanuel Bourdieu's 2006 film Poison Friends/Les amitiés maléfiques (NYFF 2006), about a group of literature students at the Sorbonne duped into accepting as a mentor a cruel, exploitive fellow student who's a complete fake. Lacking the subtlety of Céline Sciamma's tale or the full cast of characters and interesting plot line of Emmanuel Bourdieu's, Laurent's film, adapted by Laurent with Julien Lambroschini from a novel by Anne-Sophie Brasme, is marked by an awkward alternation between periods of Young-Adult-novel blandness and noir extremism. Nonetheless the two young actresses, under Laurent's direction, show promise, and the widescreen cinematography of Arnaud Potier is consistently handsome.

Breathe / Respire, 91 mins. debuted at Cannes (Critics’ Week — Special Screenings) 17 May 2014; has shown in over a dozen other festivals including Toronto. French theatrical release 12 November 2014, with good reviews (AlloCiné press rating 3.5). Screened for this review as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center-UniFrance series Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, March 2015.

US theatrical release: Friday, 11 September 2015. The US critics like it a lot: Metacritic rating 78%.

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