Writer-director Drake Doremus’s new meditation on marital infidelity, Breathe In, is a puzzling combination of emotional resonance and frustratingly lazy, on-the-nose directing. When it works, it’s usually thanks to the strong performances of its leads, eighteen-year-old British exchange student Sophie (Felicity Jones, playing a character ten years younger than herself) and the dissatisfied high school music teacher, Keith (Guy Pearce), whose family hosts her in upstate New York.
But for every nuanced extended scene with the two of them in frame, staring at each other with desire and longing, there’s something that screams metaphor. Whether it’s Keith’s wife, Megan (Amy Ryan), painstakingly assembling the broken pieces of a cookie jar as we wonder whether she’ll discover her husband’s affair, or the piano score that ranges from subdued melancholy to overt and unnecessary mood-setting, there’s a sense that Doremus doesn’t know how to contextualize the central relationship that interests him.
When the film opens, we watch through the windows of the Reynolds’s improbably fancy mansion, for a family that supposedly can’t afford to live in Manhattan, as they pose for a family photo. Shooting the outside world from inside the institutions or buildings that seem to be a prison of the characters’ own making is a recurring motif, which is both effective yet frustratingly transparent. Once we’ve seen the seemingly happy family from a distance, Doremus goes in for close-ups as their fake smiles for the cameras fade and falter, lingering especially on the film’s hero, Keith.
Keith is a good father and teacher who yearns to be a professional cellist. He regrets giving up his dream to get married and raise his daughter, Lauren (Mackenzie Davis), especially now that she’s almost ready to leave home and there’s a possibility for change. He barely conceals his resentment, and his wife is playfully dismissive of his lofty goals, even to the new foreign exchange student. Since Doremus doesn’t bother to show us what sacrifices or struggles Megan has made and dealt with – she’s not a suffering artist so her pain is irrelevant – we are forced to sympathize with Keith and revile those keeping him from his dream. Equally, his daughter, the reckless partier and swimming champion, rarely gets the opportunity to express emotions until it’s too late, when we finally wonder if her issues are symptomatic of her parents’ broken marriage. When Sophie enters – the beautiful, young woman who also shares Keith’s musical talent – it doesn’t take long for her to become the object of Keith’s lust.
Doremus works very hard to make this May-December romance both palatable and believable. Sophie has clearly had to grow up fast and finds herself too mature for her classmates; she also has her fair share of daddy issues, having been abandoned by her father just after her mother’s death. Keith is clearly alienated from his family: his wife has no real passions and he can’t connect with his daughter who is more of a jock than an artist. While his relationship with Sophie is clearly fueled by sexual passion, there’s also a tenderness between them: he’s both romantic and fatherly.
It’s in their scenes together that the film’s soft light and close-ups on disjointed body parts – hands grazing, faces nuzzling – seem most fitting, keeping the mood intimate. There’s also a wonderful scene at school when Lauren and Sophie meet Lauren’s not-quite-boyfriend, and we get a close-up of Lauren brushing aside his hair in a perfect display of helpless possessiveness. These close-ups are less effective in most other situations, like when showing us Sophie and Lauren’s legs as they play on swings whose stilted friendship doesn’t merit this idyllic portrayal.
Breathe In is at times melancholic and at others, too precious, which makes for a shaky film with some very good scenes. Unlike the young and idealistic couple in Doremus’s previous film, Like Crazy, there’s little to root for here – their relationship is doomed by design not just by circumstance – and so we can enjoy what little Sophie and Keith get from each other, while it happens, and then forget about it just as quickly.
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