There’s a fine line between close friendships and toxic ones, and for teenage girls, there’s perhaps an even finer one between sapphic love and best friends. Melanie Laurent’s Breathe joins the ranks of such female-centric and female-directed films as Ginger and Rosa and Me Without You, which explore when two female best friends can become poisonous to one another and a betrayal can spark more passion and hurt than that from a lover.
When the film begins, Charlie (Joséphine Japy) is getting out of bed where she can hear her parents fighting downstairs. When she comes downstairs, her father sweetly but demandingly feeds her eggs while her mother remains in the background, facing away, holding back tears. This kind of threesome, with mixed allegiances, secrets, and hurt, will be a defining part of he film’s story and Laurent’s directorial style.
At school, Charlie meets the sophisticated new transfer student Sarah (Lou de Laâge) whose exotic life story may be too good to be true. They become fast friends, with Charlie quickly thoughtlessly dropping Victoire (Roxane Duran), her best friend since childhood. At first, their friendship seems like a refuge. They talk constantly, laugh, and share secrets. Laurent shoots them in two shots that express this quick intimacy. While lying on Charlie’s bed chatting, Laurent focuses on their feet, hanging off the edge of the bed, the rest of their bodies out of focus — a shorthand for a comfort with shared space. We also see them huddled together in the frame in a wide shot, initially with Victoire seen at the margins.
On a weekend trip away, Sarah joins Charlie and her mother, and it’s here that things become problematic. After a night of drinking, their joking flirtation becomes more real when Sarah kisses Charlie — in character, in their game — but it means more to Charlie. Sarah subtly also starts to take over Charlie’s life, starting with when they switch outfits playfully, but building to something more pernicious: Sarah goes after Charlie’s crush and bonds too much with Charlie’s mother. Laurent lingers on Charlie no longer in frame with Sarah. The betrayal has started even as it’s still seemingly innocent.
But before long, it becomes clear that Sarah is actually unstable, that she’s sought out this kind of parasitic, close friendship, because she needs the approval. The quieter, mousier Charlie worships at her feet, and Sarah depends on this adoration to compensate for the problems in her life that she’s intent on hiding. When Charlie discovers the crack in Sarah’s façade, she retaliates with cruelty, bullying Charlie, alienating her, and making her question if they were ever really friends.
Up until this point, the film is full of wonderful, intimate moments and observations, exploring the boundaries in female friendship. Both leads are terrific, with de Laâge exuding an irresistible charisma that makes people like Charlie putty, and Japy showing a quiet vulnerability and the potential for deep passion. Laurent, too, is an expert at framing, careful to focus on the girl feeling jealous at any moment, and to allow how she places the characters in the frame to show where the allegiances are shifting.
Once Sarah starts unraveling, however, the film begins to strain believability. There’s an unmotivated link between Charlie’s parents’ on-again-off-again tumultuous relationship and Charlie’s seemingly boundless capacity for forgiveness. Charlie expresses disbelief and frustration at her mom’s inability to send her bastard father packing, but doesn’t see how she’s fallen into the same trap — a connection a bit too obvious for this otherwise subtle and probing film. Nevertheless, this is a compelling relationship drama even as it heads to its nail-biting but somewhat silly ending.