Actress Mélanie Laurent made her directorial debut in 2011 with the film The Adopted, in which she also starred. Featuring impressive performances from the entire cast, it never fully developed into anything substantial and seemed to have nothing to say. Following the cool reception of her last effort, Laurent now returns with Respire (Breathe, as it’s known in North America), a film that is definitely an improvement, but not by much.
Respire captures the tumultuous friendship of French teens Charlie (Joséphine Japy) and Sarah (Lou de Laâge). Before Sarah moves to town, the quiet Charlie is enjoying her final year in high school. Her life is shaken up, however, when the extroverted and beautiful Sarah transfers to her school. Though their personalities are drastically different, the two quickly become the best of friends. Being polar opposites, they unlock new things in each other, leading their bond to become dangerously intense, to say the least.
As soon as Respire premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, immediate comparisons to 2013 Palme d’Or winner Blue is the Warmest Color were made. The comparisons are apt, too, as Laurent’s film is very similar in plot and tone to Blue throughout its strong first act. While Charlie’s growing sexual attraction to Sarah serves as a failed attempt at subtly, there is still a certain delicacy to the pair’s relationship.
Eventually, Charlie and Sarah become a little too close, which leads to the second act that sees Laurent and Julien Lambroschini’s screenplay losing its once tight grip and delving into soap territory. What began as an intimate portrait of a passionate friendship quickly turns into Mean Girls-esque, melodramatic schlock. It is slightly appalling to think that such an excellent film can spin down the drain so quickly, but by the time its abrupt and over-the-top ending comes around, Respire has lost most of its artistic merit.
Laurent’s direction is meticulous and strong for the most part, which makes it even more unfortunate that her script delves into clichés. She pulls painfully realistic performances from her lead actresses, even when the film itself goes awry. And, along with cinematographer Arnaud Potier, she crafts a beautifully composed film.
Respire is gorgeous to look at, for sure, and you’ll be fine as long as you don’t think too much, but it’s still hard to ignore the very poorly executed second half.
While Respire is initially an excellent portrait of a friendship taken to extremes, it fumbles when it becomes a full-on melodrama.