By Sascha Nastasi-Feinburg ’21
I am often wary of reading film reviews before watching the movie for the same reason my mom is wary of trailers—I find that even a whisper of the plot can spoil the raw experience one encounters while watching a movie blank slate style. I hereby promise you no spoilers.
I consider myself a coming-of-age genre connoisseur. I have often pondered the root of this obsession, flitting between narcissism and society’s fascination with youth. But, above all, I think it’s due to the immense drama and raw emotion the teenage years offer. In April, I immersed myself in a new subcategory: French-language coming-of-age films. During this period, I watched Breathe, actress-turned-director Melanie Laurent’s second feature film.
Breathe is a movie about obsession. Laurent weaves a spellbinding tale that anyone who has been a teenage girl will find electrically true. Loosely based on the 2004 book written by seventeen-year-old Anne Sophie Brasme, Breathe delves slowly and deeply into the complexities and terror of close female teenage friendship. Characteristically French filmmaking (slow pacing, true to life nuances) is blended with high stakes and thrilling moments, making for a unique cinematic experience.
Breathe’s helming performances bring the wonderfully unadorned screenplay to life and give the film immediacy and potency. Lou de Laage’s Sarah is a cocktail of magnetism, cruelty, and vulnerability. She is simultaneously believable as an “it girl,” epitomizing “je ne sais quoi,” and a troubled, insecure, and oftentimes childlike teenager. Josephine Japy’s Charlie has a mask-like face and a powerful stillness. What she accomplishes in the film's final frames is (fittingly) breathtaking.
Cinematographically, the film is refreshingly simple. The two party scenes stand out to me; they feature brightly colored and music video-reminiscent lighting that heighten a tensioning mood. No aspect of the film inhibits or distracts from the storytelling, and this is apparent in the costume and makeup design, too.
After watching Breathe a second time, the possibility of the film having an American sister (or perhaps more accurately cousin) occurred to me. While polar opposite to Breathe tonally and stylistically, Jennifer’s Body—Diablo Cody/Karyn Kusama’s 2009 film that starred Megan Fox as a teen girl turned boy-eating monster—is similar in message and content. Both films convey (Jennifer’s Body says it outright in the screenplay) that “hell is a teenage girl.” What unites the two films unequivocally is the nonjudgmental way they tackle an all-consuming, perhaps romantic, connection between teenage girls. Both films’ protagonists inhabit an ultra human, somewhat scary, moral grey area. Fittingly, I was once similarly enamored with Jennifer’s Body. I think I now know why. The blameless souring of an intense friendship is something every teenage girl has lived. (That, and the film has an unprecedentedly scrumptious screenplay and aesthetic.)
Jennifer’s Body was a critical and commercial failure in 2009, and only recently (more than a decade later) has become a cult classic, finally appreciated for both its satire and keen insight. Breathe, released six years ago now, was a critical success, but not a commercial one. Breathe deserves its place alongside Jennifer’s Body as a sleeper hit and is worthy of mainstream success in the ever beloved coming of age genre. If you, too, are a coming-of-age aficionado, I hope you will indulge in the obsession-worthy experiences of watching Breathe and Jennifer’s Body.
Release date: May 17, 2014 (Cannes); November 12, 2014 (France)
Runtime: 91 minutes
Jennifer’s Body (2009)
Release date: September 10, 2009 (TIFF); September 18, 2009
Runtime: 102 minutes