Breathe_1sht_final.inddAn awakening of female sensuality and passion are at the core of Mélanie Laurent’s second film Breathe (Respire). Rather than exploiting the familiar coming of age narrative, Laurent explores characters that have depth and lets them evolve slowly. Breathe tells the story of Charlie (Joséphine Japy), a seemingly average suburban teenager who lives with her mother. Charlie goes to school where she has a suitor and a small but consistent group of friends and has, for the most part, a quiet life. The one source of tension for Charlie is the on and off relationship her parents have. A child of a very young couple (her mother had her at 18), Charlie witnesses the turmoil between her father, who is not committed to the relationship, and her mother, who loves her father too deeply, even painfully.

Charlie’s life is unexpectedly changed when a new girl joins the school. Sarah (Lou de Laâge) is beautiful, confident, filled with energy and appears to have taken to plain Charlie in a special way. The relationship between the two high school girls develops fast and soon Charlie becomes enthralled by Sarah. The two go everywhere together and Sarah gives Charlie her undivided attention, prompting her to find a side of herself she was unaware of. However, Sarah has also inserted herself into Charlie’s life in a pernicious way; jealous of the close bond that Charlie and her mother share, Sarah tries to elicit a close bond with Charlie’s mother. Sara also is aware of who Charlie’s closest friends are, and in a slow but persistent way, she creates a wedge between Charlie and her friends. The relationship goes from a deep friendship into a complicated entangled affair.


When Charlie takes Sarah on a family vacation, the relationship between them deepens. It goes from elated joy and a sort of closeness seldom achieved by best friends to a toxic relationship where Sarah seems to delight in seeing Charlie being hurt, while also drawing her closer in. This sick dynamic culminates when Charlie — jealous and worried — confronts Sarah one late night as she arrives after a night out. Sarah responds by seducing Charlie and passionately kissing her. From this point on, the relationship deepens in macabre ways.

As shy Charlie becomes obsessed with Sarah, her own identity suffers and wanes. She uncovers a secret Charlie has been hiding, and when she approaches Sarah to talk about it, hoping this will make them closer again, Sarah goes into a rage and unleashes a campaign against Charlie. At school, Charlie becomes the object of Sarah’s rage. She is unable to fight back, as she still garners hopes to recoup that lost friendship.


The action centers around different kinds of women, it is not only a coming of age for Charlie, but also an interesting take on her mother, who has been deeply involved in regaining her father for years but throughout the course of the film finds herself renewed. As Simone de Beauvoir once posited, “One is not born but rather becomes a woman,” meaning the lived body, carrying experiences and a unique socioeconomic imprint, an identity gradually acquired.

In Breathe, Charlie is in the process of becoming a woman, that identity partly learned from an example at home and partly due to external stimuli represents the shift in Charlie’s personality. While the end may seem a shocking development, it is also an instance of becoming a woman. The process of evolving and becoming a woman is not a simple or linear trajectory, as Beauvoir reminds us, it is charged with contextual and cultural meaning. In Charlie’s microcosm it is also the result of the lived experience at home, where the one relationship that has molded her persona is ridden with rejection and suffering.

Ana Morgenstern

Breathe runs 91 minutes long, is in French with English subtitles and it is not rated (there is adult language, sexuality and violence on an array of levels). It’s now playing in our South Florida area exclusively at the Coral Gables Art Cinema and in Boca Raton at the Living Room Theaters. On Oct. 2, it begins its run at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. For screening dates in other cities, visit this link. All images in this post courtesy of Film Movement, which also provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Ana Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

If there is a moment in history that does not need overwrought drama, sentimentality and heavy-handedness it is the roundup of Jews to Hitler’s death camps during World War II. Since the 2010 release of La Rafle (The Roundup) in France, where it was a bona fide box office hit, there have been many reviews of the film. Many have accused director Rose Bosch of sentimentality. But I feel differently about her movie, as she does seem to show restraint. Based on true accounts of this dark bit of history in Nazi-occupied Paris, though unrated by the MPAA, she tempers the film for a PG-13 level of audience. Some will argue this weakens the impact of the story, making it in fact sentimental. OK, so she does not exploit the violence. This does not make this story any less powerful. Besides, the horror of the Holocaust can never be matched sitting in a cozy movie theater for a couple of hours no matter how “unsentimental” you make it.

The music, though sometimes melodramatic, remains subdued. Especially if you compare it to, say, John Williams, who composed the score for Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. There are few grandiose moments in La Rafle and no abuse of slow motion or other such high-pitched, stylized techniques. Though the production value is high, it serves the story, and never feels too showy. The production even includes a digital effect that sweeps through the thousands rounded up in one day contained in the Velodrome d’Hiver, on their first step to the death camps. This is not a fun film to watch, but a testament, if a straight-forward one, with little standout stylistic flourishes, so despite the fact that this film features Mélanie Laurent, who shines in an emotionally charged performance, do not expect Inglorious Basterds.

I’m not saying La Rafle is a perfect film. It actually falls in a sort of middle ground of compromise of violence and sentimentality that will probably be shrugged away by most. But, I, for one, was moved by the film’s little touches of detail. The story is, for the most-part, told from the perspective of Joseph Weismann (Hugo Leverdez), a naive 11-year-old boy who is based on a real, still living person, who barely escaped the trains to Auschwitz to tell the story that informs this movie. The film is at its strongest when it stays with his perspective. However, Bosch tries to cram too much exposition around Weismann’s story to the film’s detriment. It is in the intimate moments with Jo where the simple power of the film resonates.

The film begins with too much expository dialogue running the viewer through a historical context that should be familiar to anyone who might be curious about such a movie. There is even a brief cut to Vichy, France, the famous seat of the collaborators that paved Hitler’s entrance into France. There are also cutaways to Hitler himself (Udo Schenk) who has such obvious lines as “Everything is happening as I wrote in Mein Kampf.” He also tells Himmler (Thomas Darchinger) of making “ashes” of the Jews so no one can tell the children from the adults. There is one brief moment showing a German officer calling from Auschwitz, with flames raging behind him, asking for the deliveries to slow down. In more deft hands, say Oliver Stone or Quentin Tarantino, that moment could have resonated, but it’s muted and oddly matter-of-fact, as Bosch tries to over-reach for comprehension in the drama.

The truth of the horrors of this period in history do not need such painstaking, all-encompassing re-enactment. It’s the small, intimate moments that ultimately hold the film together, like the little Jewish boy Nono (played by identical twin brothers Mathieu Di Concerto and Romain Di Concerto) who tag along with the masses. Through it all he continues to ask when his mother will arrive to join he and his brother, not knowing that she has already died. He clings to a Red Cross nurse named Annette Monod (Laurent) who knows the truth but tries to keep his spirit afloat as her own spirals downward. There are also more personal details like the disposal of jewelry in the latrines just before the detainees are hauled away to their final camp and the arrival of firemen at the Velodrome d’Hiver offering their hoses to the thirsty masses. Those contained at the stadium also do not pass up a chance to hand over notes to the firemen addressed to those on the outside. These are the sort of details a child might remember from a life experience. The historical context was something far beyond and would have naturally come out in the film in more subtle ways.

It is a difficult line to walk for a director who wants to tell a side of the Holocaust that has not really ever been given such a grandiose, big budget treatment. This was a true human tragedy in France. Anyone unmoved by film’s end, during the reunion of those who should have died, is not allowing themselves a chance to understand the horror that Bosch is trying to communicate. She does it best during the small details, like the unrelenting drive of a Jewish doctor (Jean Reno) to help his people stay alive in the unsanitary conditions they were relegated to. Or the small but powerful lines by the victims as they are rounded up. One woman screams, “I won’t leave. This is my house!” as she clings to her home’s door frame while a French policeman yanks on her. When the neighborhood baker’s wife yells out “Good bye, Jewish vermin” as those gathered up are placed on trucks, a little girl yells back, “I’m not vermin!” These moments resonate with immense tragedy, proving there is no need for melodrama or over-explanation. It is these observant touches of humanity that pay off in the end.

Hans Morgenstern

La Rafle opens Friday, Feb. 17, in select theaters nationwide, in the US. In South Florida it will play the Intracoastal Mall Cinema in North Miami, Sunrise Eleven in West Broward, Living Room Theaters in Boca Raton, Regal Shadowood, Regal Delray and Cobb Jupiter 18. The following Friday, Feb. 24, it will start its run at the Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale and the Miami Beach Cinematheque. The film is unrated and runs 124 minutes. Up-date: If you missed it at any of the prior venues, it arrives for a limited run at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema as part of Miami Film Month on Friday, Mar. 16. Get tickets to those dates here.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)