Breathe is happy to indulge its taste for the obvious from the outset, as a teacher conducts a dishonestly offhand discussion about freedom and desire with a group of high school students before concluding in perfectly on-the-nose fashion that passion is harmful when it becomes excessive. But the film has even managed to start trading in clichés before this unabashedly theme-establishing talk, with the opening argument between the parents of mousy late-teen Charlie (Joséphine Japy) also feeling familiar to the point of ridiculousness, right down to the forlorn, teary-eyed mother standing at the kitchen window and the father barking at Charlie to eat. The fact that Breathe still manages to carve out a degree of insight within its well-trodden toxic friendship narrative is at once heartening and depressing, but a competent spin on a familiar genre is hardly cause for celebration.
With her difficult family life and humdrum school routine, it’s clear that Charlie is looking for any sort of distraction possible, which duly arrives in the form of Sarah (Lou de Laâge), a winningly feisty transfer student who naturally singles out Charlie as her new best friend. Although Sarah’s boisterousness already borders on the inappropriate, Charlie immediately makes her into part of the family, a surrogate sister to dance with, giggle with, and hold her hair when she vomits. But a trip to the country with Charlie’s mother exposes the haste with which this sisterhood was forged, as new, more ambiguous feelings prickle to the surface in the face of the cramped sleeping conditions, attractive men, free-flowing wine, and endless sunlight. Upon their return, things are irreversibly different, with backbiting giving way to distance, distance to animosity, and animosity to outright aggression, until Charlie is entirely cowed by Sarah’s increasingly erratic behavior.
There’s something undeniably authentic about the ebbs and flows of this progressively more dysfunctional relationship, which writer-director Mélanie Laurent allows to teeter plausibly between complicity, one-upmanship, and desire. She’s aided considerably by her two leads, whose faces in particular effortlessly convey each individual nuance of their troublesome bond. The moments that really push their performances to the fore are unsurprisingly the strongest in the film, with the standout scene that shows a spontaneous kiss followed by an ambiguous slap resonating all the more thanks to how much de Laâge and Japy underplay it.
Yet aside from this innate understanding of female friendship dynamics, it’s hard to see exactly what else Laurent brings to this overly familiar story, especially given that Breathe cycles through most of the same plot points on display in such other, disparate examples of this crowded genre as Mean Girls, Water Lilies, and My Summer of Love. It’s certainly not anything visual, as Laurent’s images come off as lazily, self-consciously hip. While the handheld camera is likely intended to invoke a sense of edginess or sensuality, its movements are kept to such a prim minimum they come off as hopelessly meek. Laurent also has a penchant for coordinated colors and framings that would be totally at home in a fashion shoot, occasionally blooming into polite music-video-style dance sequences whose only apparent function is to draw attention to themselves. The obviousness of the plot also frequently spills over into her visual vocabulary, whether in a scene of Charlie wading into a lake and staring into the middle distance (contemplation) or another that shows her watching swallows circling forbiddingly in an overcast sky (menace).
Once Sarah’s antics become so unbearable that Charlie is repeatedly unable to breathe, it’s clear that nuance has finally lost the battle with literalism, with all the promising specificity little more than a vehicle to rearticulate an already familiar truism, as it would appear that passion really is harmful when it becomes excessive. So it’s in fact the perils of linear plotting that become Breathe’s true moral: When you’re forced to draw a straight line between two identical points, there’s never going to be much room for shading.