Written by Melanie Laurent and Julien Lambroschini
Directed by Melanie Laurent
What is love? Love is a pain, love is death, love is a bitch. But friendship, that’s even worse. Friendship is nebulous; it’ll steal your affections, spread rumors about you, scrawl dirty lies on your locker. Life-affirming and, ultimately, life-ending, friendship is like coffee laced with slow-acting poison. At least that’s how it works in Melanie Laurent’s gorgeous Respire, an unsettling usurpation of your usual coming-of-age story, and one of the most confident sophomore films of recent memory.
A staggeringly tragic story of adolescent amity turned toxic, Laurent’s film taps the rhythm of high school life: the petty banter and cafeteria gossip, the birth and death of fleeting crushes, the caustic politics of inner-friend circles. Charlie (Josephine Japy), a mild-mannered young girl, has her circle of friends. Victoire (Roxane Duran) has been her best friend since sixth grade, and Charlie’s sometimes-boyfriend Lucas (Louka Meliava) seems like a nice guy. Then a new student named Sarah (Lou de Laage) shows up. While their teacher has her back turned, Sarah sneakily helps a fellow student struggling with a math problem; yet when teacher asks her if she’s familiar with mathematical foils, Sarah feigns ignorance. Teacher asks Victoire to move her seat and places Sarah next to Charlie, subsequently tasking Charlie with helping Sarah catch-up on her foils. (To be honest, I didn’t even catch the obvious metaphor here until I started writing this review, which is either a testament to Laurent’s subtle touch, or my blatant stupidity.)
Sarah and Charlie hit it off quickly, bonding over their familial turmoil. Amazing Amy might refer to Sarah as a Cool Girl, and Laurent entwined the film with all sorts of clever (but not overly clever) nods to Sarah’s deft ability to maintain a composed mien. Sarah briefly displays surprising skill on a balance beam, an apparent hobby that’s never mentioned in a literal sense again. Sarah, we quickly surmise, is that proverbial bad influence, a girl who smokes too much and who goads her shy friend into pursuing that cute boy she’d otherwise never have talked to. So it’s not entirely surprising when Charlie begins punching holes in Sarah’s facade, and maybe Sarah’s not so great after all. What is surprising is how profoundly upsetting this friendship turns, how drastic is the drop from its apex to its nadir.
20-year-old Japy’s devolution from happy, quiet girl to shattered soul is stirring; she turns a blank stare into ineffable heartbreak. But de Laage gives the film its searing edge and palpitating pulse. With seemingly insurmountable weight keeping her eyes wide open (perhaps an unconscious manifestation of guilt, or maybe the cumulative effects of too much smoking) and minute facial tics, she strikes the elusive balance between charming and conniving, knavish and nefarious. Even at her most horrible, Sarah still manages to slip her hooks into you, exhuming empathy just when you’re ready to write her off as parasitic or cruel. She is, in essence, a teenager, lost and confuse, bullying and broken.
Laurent, best known by American moviegoers as the young woman who burns down a movie theater full of Nazis in Tarantino’s masterpiece Inglourious Basterds, displays a keen understanding of empty space and framing. Aided immeasurably by cinematographer Arnaud Potier, the first-time feature-film director depicts the advent and ultimate destruction of a poisonous friendship with vivid clarity and painful sincerity. Nary a moment feels unnatural or out of place, as Laurent and editor Guerric Catala sustain a breezy pace and almost tangible rhythm without haste or waste. The ending may come off as histrionic to some, but it feels inevitable, arguably the only true solution to a bad situation, and Laurent deserves praise not only for her willingness to delve into such darkness, but the skill with which she convincingly crafts the moment.
Respire is a familiar story, but Laurent tells it with the fervor of a veteran griot. She treats the material earnestly and takes no shortcuts, and eschews the tropes of coming-of-age films. Laurent and co-writer Julien Lambroschini capture the ebb and flow of a toxic friendship, and the Sisyphean desperation of trying, and failing, to get out of that friendship. They draw parallels between Charlie’s mother, who can’t seem to quit her emotionally abusive father, and who seeks solace in the beds of myriad men. Various forms of self-abuse, of varying severity, are present, from casual chain-smoking to binge drinking, abusive relationships and self-imposed isolation. Characters say they smoke too much, but they don’t quit; they know when they’re hurting themselves but they can’t stop, which is the ultimate tragic irony. High school, it seems, never ends. Not really.
At the film’s beginning, Sarah’s teacher muses on Plato’s notion of love stemming from the gut, not the heart (hence the term “to have guts”). Following that train of thought, Respire is a gut-punch of a film, a coming-of-age story in which teenagers innocently swoon with lust and exchange secrets under shroud of cigarette smoke, and then stab each other in the back. If Cahiers du Cinema compiles a list of French cinema’s greatest villains, teenagers could land in the top ten. Not that these are caricatures, oh no: every character has his or her own cogent motivations, and relationships feel organic, evolving and disintegrating the way relationships do. Laurent never seems to strain to find vitality in the minutia of adolescence. She excels at the seemingly insignificant moments that won’t adorn the pages of anyone’s diary; those ephemeral moments of shared laughter, of silly decisions and stolen nights. Laurent plumbs the darkest depths of teenagerdom without losing sight of the light.