Mélanie Laurent is better known for her appearances in front of the camera. She has starred alongside some of Hollywood’s biggest names including Brad Pitt (Inglourious Basterds), Jake Gyllenhaal (Enemy), Morgan Freeman (Now you see me, now you don’t) and Ewan McGregor (Beginners). After a lukewarm reception to her directorial debut, Les Adoptés, she is back with Respire an adaptation of the novel by Anne-Sophie Brasme. At first, Respire, bears a certain similarity to Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Colour with its focus on the intense relationship between two young woman. But the film then morphs into a lacklustre thriller with a predictable, uninspired finale.
Charlie (Joséphine Japy) is a fragile 17-year-old who lives alone with her mother Vanessa (Isabelle Carré) after her parents have separated. When new girl Sarah (Lou de Laâge) arrives at school, Charlie is immediately drawn to the outgoing, fun loving young woman and the two become best friends. But Sarah is not interested in becoming Charlie’s exclusive BFF and soon teams up with other classmates leaving Charlie out in the cold. Increasingly isolated and lonely, Charlie follows Sarah home one evening and discovers her secret. The relationship between the two begins to sour as Sarah sets out to punish Charlie for her betrayal.
Brasme wrote her novel when she was just 17-years-old so no surprises she hits the spot when portraying the difficult, often cruel, world of young women in their late teens. And all credit to Laurent for raising a topic so little talked about or even recognised in France. It’s a shame a serious subject like adolescent bullying is reduced here to a mere plot device. Sarah is a disturbed, unhappy young woman who taunts and psychologically abuses Charlie who is already struggling to cope with her parents separation, the pressure of school work and final exams. What is missing – and what detracts from the authenticity of the story – is any attempt to understand why Charlie is so easily abandoned by her friends, family and teachers at a time when she needs them most. Instead there is increasing melodrama as Charlie’s gradual breakdown leads to unnecessary and shocking violence.
On the plus side, the two actresses, especially Japy, are a real find. Apart from one too many scenes where the two dissolve into fits of laughing at the drop of the hat, the relationship for the first half of the film is highly credible. It’s genuinely difficult to watch as Japy portrays Charlies deepening lack of self esteem combined with an absence of self pity. De Laâge’s first film break was alongside Pierre Niney (Yves Saint Laurent) in Frédéric Louf’s J’aime regarder les filles (18 years old and rising). And here she strikes just the right note as the malicious, slightly unhinged Sarah. Supported by a fine secondary cast of actors, including Carré, Claire Keim and Carole Franck, Respire could have delivered more.