Every summer, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston hosts a French Film Festival. Being a loyal francophile, one might imagine my excitement at learning about this last July. In actuality, I was cursing myself for being oblivious, missing half of the festival, and frantically scrolling through listings of remaining films that I could squeeze into my schedule. My curses then evolved into complete vile exclamations when I realized I would have only one afternoon free. That was it- one movie. The choice had to be impeccable. When my desperate search produced the film Respire (Breathe), which was loosely described as a journey through female camaraderie, I yipped a happy squeal accompanied by some enthusiastic clapping- how perfect! I do love a good story about female friendships. Is there anyone who subscribes to girl power more than I do? Doubtful. With the promotional image of two girls on a breezy beach laughing, smiling, and outstretching arms to catch the wind on a sunny day- how could I believe that this film would be anything short of inspirational and uplifting?
Look at that photo. Happy times, right?
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
Respire, director Mélanie Laurant’s 2014 award-winning drama, introduces us to Charlie (Josephine Japy)- an emotionally devoid teen struggling to exist within her parents’ shattered and abusive marriage. In fact, we meet Charlie as she solemnly sips her orange juice during a catastrophic screaming match between mom and dad. We immediately know that her domestic life is toxic, and even though she vacantly stares at her breakfast during this opening scene, her eyes beg for a life less volatile.
Seemingly at her most vulnerable, Charlie and her childhood best friend, Victoire (Roxane Duran), leave for school where their math class is interrupted by the introduction of a new student- Sarah (Lou de Laag). Oh Sarah. Eccentric and overtly sexual, Sarah saunters into the classroom, and is assigned to sit with and shadow Charlie. Sarah is a charmer. She’s exotic. She’s worldly. Explaining that her mother is working in Africa, and Sarah’s returned to live with an oddball aunt, we are immediately intrigued by this alternative, mysterious wild child. Charlie and Sarah’s friendship is instantaneous, and their chemistry evolves to stagger on the line of friendship and romance.
The meek Charlie longs to be someone else- someone who does not have to endure the toxicity of an eviscerated domestic existence. Sarah fulfills that need. Her spontaneity and carefree demeanor is alluring. She provides Charlie with the necessary affection and attention, encouraging to live outside of the comfort zone. Through cosmetic lessons, drunken party escapades, and lighthearted intimate encounters, Sarah transforms Charlie’s dull, morose life into a gleeful teenage utopia.
Then things change.
Seduced by Sarah’s charm, Charlie’s mother, Vanessa (Isabelle Carré) invites Sarah on a family holiday weekend to a relative’s camp- sans angry dad, of course. At this point, Charlie’s parents have thankfully separated. The girls are ever ecstatic for the getaway. Although, when Charlie nonchalantly introduces Sarah as a mere ‘classmate’ to a family friend, Sarah is wounded. Sarah’s mood shifts- She ignores Charlie, then teases her, then acts normal once again. Repeat cycle. Unfortunately for Charlie, it drastically devolves into yet another unstable relationship she must try to navigate.
This quickly becomes a film about bullying, and it gets dark. Charlie disassociates herself from all human interaction- including her beloved childhood friend, Victoire. Truths about Sarah’s past are revealed. This film is well done, but it will not leave you feeling good about life. Personally, I would need a substantial amount of Xanax to watch it again… and maybe some vodka. Admittedly, I watched this film for a second time recently to refresh my memory, and knowing how intense the plot is, I made myself a giant mug of hot chocolate oozing with toasted marshmallows. I needed the comfort. I suppose that is what makes this film a success. It sticks. Despite knowing the ending and bracing myself for it, I find myself still affected, still thinking about Charlie’s desperation. Having been bullied during my adolescent years, I could somewhat empathize. Although, my childhood domestic life was not nearly as tumultuous as Charlie’s. Regardless, the cinematography is simple and stunningly somber, even in earlier scenes where Charlie and Sarah are happy and inseparable. The acting is fantastic- Lou de Laage is a flawless sociopath. Respire does not disappoint, but the film is not for the lighthearted soul… I rate it THREE Eiffel Towers:
Next year, not only will I plan for the French Film Festival early, but I will also read the full movie description beforehand so I am not blindsided and sobbing my way down Huntington Avenue while being judged by a roadside local who actually believed he was a rooster in his past life. Live and learn.
À la prochaine.