The obsessive best friendship of “Breathe”

French actress Mélanie Laurent read Anne-Sophie Brasme‘s young adult novel Respire and loved it so much, she made it into a film. That film, now called Breathe, was up for the Queer Palms Award at Cannes in 2014, an annual award given to a Cannes selection for its treatment of LGBT themes. But despite it being a sensational movie, if you watch Breathe, you will understand why it lost to Pride.

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Charlie (Joséphine Japy) doesn’t have a lot of friends at her French high school. But when new girl Sarah (Lou de Laâge) takes a shine to her, Charlie begins to feel special; loved, even, as her parents constant struggle to maintain their own relationship keeps them from connecting with their lonely daughter. Sarah is gorgeous and wild, the kind of girl you can’t keep your eyes off of in fear you’ll miss something you could have been a part of. Charlie is enamored with her and they have the kind of best friendship that we’ve seen in films like Thirteen, where the intimacy shared between two young girls begins to cross the border into sexual and romantic territory, as Charlie and Sarah share a kiss, but in a moment while acting giddy and playful and Charlie seems perplexed while Sarah shrugs it off as commonplace.

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Soon after, the friendship takes a turn into something dark, as Sarah drops Charlie as quickly as she’d befriended her, and then begins to bully her at school. She embarrasses her in front of her peers, writes insults about her on her desk and runs directly into her while on the track during gym class. Charlie’s whole existence becomes dictated by how Sarah is to her that day, and Sarah won’t leave her alone. As to not spoil the rest of the film, suffice to say their relationship does not end with their confessions of love and starting a life together in nearby Paris.

The queerness of Breathe isn’t in the form of a love story, but instead of a reading of Charlie’s all-consuming passion (both good and bad) for Sarah. Charlie takes no real interest in the boys at school. She becomes jealous when Sarah wants to spend time with an older guy while they are on holiday together. Later she follows Sarah home and craves a better understanding of this girl who has consumed her thoughts and every moment of waking life. 

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These kinds of obsessive stories have been told in different ways. In Notes on a Scandal, it was Judi Dench‘s character hoping to blackmail Cate Blanchett’s into loving her. In Heavenly Creatures, Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey played best friends-turned-lovers whose fervor for wanting to spend every moment together led them to pre-meditated murder—and that’s based on a true story. But what Breathe captures (with two incredibly talented actresses at the center, I might add) is the eerie and yet all-too-real way that women can create and destroy each other’s lives. Whether or not Charlie is truly queer and wants Sarah’s love in a more-than-friendly way, it’s the incessant fascination she has with her that is relatable. As the director told Variety, “I think that to a lesser degree we’ve all been caught in a self-destructive relationship whether with a friend, a lover or a parent.”

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Mélanie also told Interview, “I met a lot of Sarahs. [laughs] I met some boys like Sarah and girls, too. That very special person, who loves you, but in a very wrong way, followed me. I was 30, and I was like, ‘Okay, that sort of relationship has to stop.’ I think that making that movie helped me to put a cross on a period of my past.”

Her goal, she said, was to show “two very, very lonely and lost girls,” and viewers get a glimpse into Sarah’s less-than-desirable home life, which makes her less hateful for a moment. But in the next, she’s back to terrorizing Charlie and it’s hard to want to forgive the girl who is causing another so much pain.

“I chose to follow Charlie,” Mélanie said. “She’s in every shot in the movie. Maybe Charlie makes that story in her head. Maybe she just overreacts, because she’s totally addicted to that girl.”

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An addiction to another person isn’t always based in something sexual, but in Breathe, it courses through the narrative. Sarah is the kind of free-spirited, fast-talking teen that Nikki Reed‘s Evie is in Thirteen. She creates a fantastical world through made-up stories and has the kind of energy that people are drawn to. But it’s a dangerous game for tender-hearts like Charlie or Evan Rachel Wood‘s Tracey, who get swept up in the highs that they have trouble coping with the lows. But Charlie doesn’t fare as well as Tracey did, and the object of her infatuation haunts her until she feels like she’s being suffocated. (Hence, the title Breathe.) 

Nikki Reed and Evan Rachel Wood in “Thirteen”thirteen

Breathe is a great film. It’s gorgeously shot and acted, with a very realistic story of a friendship-gone-wrong at its center. If you’re looking for a lesbian love story, look elsewhere—this is a tale of a painful, all-consuming kind of love that all too quickly slips into hate.

Breathe opens in New York on September 11 and in LA on September 18.