Respire is Mélanie Laurent’s second feature length film and although I still have to see her 2011 debut The Adopted, there’s no doubt that she’s an incredibly talented filmmaker. This coming of age film, adapted for screen by Julien Lambroschini and Laurent herself, may seem simple at first, considering it’s about a shy and introverted 17-year old who becomes friends with a wild, extroverted and rebellious new girl that transfers to her high school. However, the film quickly evolves into a compelling and multi-layered drama about a destructive and obsessive friendship that develops between the two teenage girls.
High school, teenagers and female friendships: this already sounds like a catastrophe that is bound to happen. Guys may not know how awful teenage girls can be (or they might, I don’t know), but I was a teenage girl not so long ago and I still remember those days all too vividly. I’m sure that guys have their own ways of expressing the confusion, anger and the overall awfulness of a particularly uneasy life stage called adolescence, but for girls it mostly means being manipulative and self-involved to the point of being insufferable. This is exactly how Sarah, who transfers to a new school in Paris after moving from Nigeria, acts and she immediately finds herself a new friend (or rather a victim of sorts) in an insecure, quiet and trusting Charlie. I was Charlie for so many times in my life that my head literally hurt when I was watching her being continuously manipulated by Sarah and getting isolated from the whole classroom when she finally managed to stand up for herself. Everything in this film was all too familiar: how she doesn’t say anything about it and quietly tortures herself, quite possibly even defending Sarah’s actions in her head (“she comes from a troubled family, she didn’t meant to do that, it’s probably all my fault” etc.). I liked how it remains unclear if Sarah’s really just a friend to somewhat awkward and inexperienced Charlie, or if their drunken kiss during the holidays actually results in her having romantic feelings towards her best friend. It’s obvious that Charlie’s deeply infatuated with Sarah, but the film leaves it to the viewer’s interpretation if she’s actually in love with her or if her obsession is just pure admiration, her wanting to be like Sarah in every aspect of her life.
You may say that the whole story is unbelievable or over the top, that Sarah is a complete psycho and that friends would never act like this. If you’re saying this, you’ve clearly never been a teenage girl. I’ve met my fair share of Sarah’s in my life – and it may not have ended so tragically as it does in the film, but it was certainly something that I won’t easily forget. This film was like watching my own life when I was 12 years old (slightly younger than Sarah and Charlie are) and while I didn’t like the memories it evoked, I loved the film and it’s realistic portrayal of how psychopathic and manipulative teenage girls can be.
This film consists of almost entirely female cast, which is an extremely rare and precious thing (there’s some male characters here and there, but none of them is really important for the plot: there’s Charlie’s mostly absent Croatian father, a high school teacher, Charlie’s mother’s new love interest and a couple of male classmates). It’s also unbelievably refreshing to see that Sarah and Charlie’s fallout isn’t because of a boy (which is usually the reason for women to fight on screen), but rather Sarah’s troubling secret being revealed, which results in Sarah declaring war to masochistic Charlie, who seems to think she deserves all the hell that comes her way. The film is also impressively multi-layered with details like Charlie’s treatment of her childhood friend Valerie, who is her closest friend up to the point when Sarah enters the picture. After that Valerie’s mostly ignored by Charlie, who for the first time in her life feels liberated and alive, all thanks to her being around the spontaneous Sarah. Her treatment of Valerie isn’t much different to how Sarah later treats Charlie herself. Some parallels can also be drawn between Charlie keeping quiet when being psychologically tortured in school, repeatedly forgiving Sarah for acting this way and her mother’s constant forgiveness to her father’s transgressions.
Laurent certainly proved that she’s more than a capable director and I’m looking forward to seeing more of her films. Relatively inexperienced lead actresses Joséphine Japy and Lou de Laâge also give strong performances, with Lou de Laâge’s portrayal of Sarah being particularly haunting and hard to forget.
I saw this film as a part of my Year of Female Filmmakers.
Directed by: Mélanie Laurent
Written by: Julien Lambroschini and Mélanie Laurent (based on a novel by Anne-Sophie Brasme)
Starring: Joséphine Japy, Lou de Laâge, Isabelle Carré, Claire Keim
Running Time: 91 minutes